Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen give fantastic performances in a message movie that fumbles the message.
Green Book is a sentimental road trip buddy picture about racism and classism and snobbery in the middle of the 20th century, starring Viggo Mortensen as an Italian-American working class joe, hired to chauffeur one of the most celebrated artists in America through the South on a multi-city tour. That artist is Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and along the way both men have heck of a lot to learn about racism.
They bicker, they bond, and in one scene they fawn over Kentucky Fried Chicken so much that the company is probably furious they had to change their name to “KFC.” They also encounter virulent hatred, corrupt police officers and dehumanizing business owners. It’s a cavalcade of opportunities for Mortensen and Ali, two of the finest actors working today, to build an enchanting bond on camera, and explore it as much as they possibly can.
Unfortunately, their efforts are not enough to make Green Book work.
Green Book is a road movie, a concert movie, and a buddy picture, but most importantly it’s a message movie. It’s the based-on-a-true story of how two men from very different worlds found common ground together, and each overcame their unhealthy attitudes about race, class and culture. But although it’s handsomely photographed and impressively acted, it doesn’t actually tell its story well. Thematically, Green Book practically shoots itself in its own feet and then it tries to sprint.
Take Tony Lip (Mortensen), a man we’re told is a racist, and as such, is the last person you’d imagine would drive Don Shirley around the Deep South, protecting him from other racists. That sounds like an ironic situation, rife with dramatic possibilities, and it would be, if the movie didn’t seem terrified to make Tony actually look racist.
There’s a scene early on where Tony wakes up and finds his whole family in the house, keeping an eye on Tony’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), because there are two black plumbers working in the kitchen. Tony watches suspiciously as the plumbers drink from his glasses, and then as soon as they leave, he throws those glasses away.
That is a moment undeniable racism, but it’s practically the only moment that Tony behaves that way. Tony is portrayed as remarkably enlightened, and even more knowledgable and respectful about black popular culture than Shirley is. Tony uses coarse language but he has friends from multiple ethnicities, and when confronted with an unexpectedly frank display of homosexuality, he reveals that he’s seen it all before and that he makes no judgments. He’s rough around the edges, but as far as Green Book is concerned he’s already far ahead of the curve for his time period, and not far away from total enlightenment.
In contrast, Don Shirley is stubbornly judgmental about black culture, to the extent that he has to learn a lot of it from Tony Lip. He’s also portrayed as a difficult stick in the mud, noble for trying to bring positive representation to the South and the artistic world, but antisocial and snobbish. And the movie portrays his evolution via a newfound, total acceptance of popular art, as though that has more value than what he normally does, i.e. create works of genius. Which is pretty judgmental of the actual film.
Where Green Book almost makes a salient point is in its portrayal of class. Tony’s diminished education and boorish manners make him, in some ways, also a social outcast. At one point they both end up in the same jail cell for different reasons: Tony, because he can’t behave himself, and Shirley, because he’s black. But the movie never acknowledges the gross injustice of making that connection between them. Namely, that Don Shirley had to become the most one of the most accomplished and celebrated artists in the entire world just to be treated almost as well as his white chauffeur.
Again, Green Book features delightful performances by Ali and Mortensen. It’s shot attractively and paced rather well. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it earns its emotional heft. But it’s a message movie, and that message falls apart, because Green Book is more eager to give Tony Lip credit for being pretty cool than to give Don Shirley credit for being one of the most incredible humans on the planet.
If you don’t think about it very much you might enjoy Green Book on a surface level, as a well intentioned Oscar bait motion picture, with high ideals and comforting aphorisms. But why would you go to a movie about exploring America’s ugly history with racism if you’re not going to think about it?