Green Book (2018)

Dir. Peter Farrelly. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Mahershala Ali won his second Academy Award for playing Don Shirley in this movie, and it’s an extremely endearing performance. He exemplifies “trim” in this picture, from his beautiful clothes to his neat facial hair to his spotless elocution. Watching someone who has every inch of his life in order, we’ve been trained to expect, will reveal the vast expanses which are significantly less ordered, and of course Don has those. Green Book expects us to read that reticence in two ways. The first is a sort of crust, the kind of withdrawal from popular culture (or, if you grant Mortensen’s Tony Lip this much, the culture of “his people”) which allows him to isolate himself. And then the second is one which the world has forced on him. The Cutty Sark, the refusal to engage with his fellow musicians or his sometime neighbors, the long stretches of silence. We’re supposed to understand this as the sacrifice that Don Shirley has made for the cause of civil rights. He is not accepted by whites, for as much as they enjoy his performances they do not let him stay in their hotels or eat in their restaurants. Nor is he accepted by blacks, for he is repeatedly cast by the picture as not being “black enough.” Thus this monologue near the end of the movie, in which all of that trim projection is sucked noisily down the drain:

Yes, I live in a castle, Tony! Alone. And rich white people pay me to play piano for them because it makes them feel cultured. But as soon as I step off that stage, I go right back to being just another Negro to them. Because that is their true culture. And I suffer that slight alone, because I’m not accepted by my own people because I’m not like them, either. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and if I’m not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?

What, indeed. Mahershala Ali is a tremendous actor, and he must be, because he plays a character with oodles of screentime and no human qualities. We can describe what he does. He plays piano, he refuses to be the victim of the indignities of segregation, he sneaks off to bars or the Y to get into mischief. In truth these are moments more for us to learn about Tony Lip than they are for us to learn about Shirley. That last is particularly egregious. A naked Shirley is handcuffed to a naked white guy on the floor of a Macon YMCA. Tony Lip, as smooth as silk, knows how to handle this. The cops have an outstanding piece of business on their hands, but Tony Lip speaks to what they want. Recalling a suit that they wouldn’t let Shirley try on in the store, Tony offers to buy each cop that suit. He paints a picture for them: a night on the town, out with their wives, looking sharp. They let Shirley go, and the movie basically lets the moment go as well, only recalling it for that aforementioned monologue in the movie’s dunker spot. What have we learned about Shirley? We learn that he was caught in the middle of having sex with some rando in central Georgia. What have we learned about Tony Lip? We learn that he’s an operator, a cool customer. One of those is a bullet point on a longer list, and the other builds out a character, and it’s the same all the way through the movie. The white man is a person. The black man is a prop. No wonder racism is as easy to fix in a man’s heart as “All we have to do is reach out and get to know one another” in Green Book, as if black people and white people in the Jim Crow South didn’t have a bunch of opportunities to know one another.

The reason why Green Book fails is the reason a recipe might fail: the proportions are off. As a road movie, Green Book is fairly successful. Farrelly layers in shots of the Heartland and the Deep South in all their stereotyped, view from the highway perspective. (Ah, a metaphor.) Tony Lip writes home to Dolores (Cardellini) that it’s a beautiful country, and it sure is. None of the individual places feel all that specific—is there really a difference between Little Rock or Birmingham or Macon?—but the episodes are memorable enough, if a little repetitive. The lads drive into another town, they get into some trouble, one of them bails the other out, and then Shirley does his show. As a buddy comedy, Green Book is fairly successful. Ali is masterful in a nothing part, and Mortensen, playing this enormous stereotype of an Italian-American, at least does it with some gusto. He draws some laughs throughout; no matter what you think of the movie, or of how often it relies on Tony Lip’s eating as a punchline, watching Viggo Mortensen pick up an entire pizza, fold it in half, and take a big ol’ chomp out of it is funny. The buddy comedy will take its counterparts’ differences as fuel. In Il sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman is as free and easy as Jean-Louis Trintignant is anxious and anemic; in The Shawshank Redemption, social class differentiates Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, to say nothing of their respective innocence; in Rain Man, Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman basically play caricatures of their acting styles. Only Il sorpasso is a particularly good movie among this group, and it’s because it can give the most time to the buddies in the buddy comedy. Shawshank is concerned with systemic injustice; Rain Man is about “family” or something. Green Book is about historical racism. The way this movie comes off, you would think that 2018 and 1962 were separated as completely and permanently as minerals locked into different strata of rock. The old car in a color cars don’t come in anymore, the old-fashioned clothes, the constant stream of old rock ‘n roll, a Bobby Rydell cameo, namedropping Bobby Kennedy. Buddy comedies may seem like a great way to get viewers to eat their vegetables, but all Shawshank or Rain Man or Green Book can aspire to be is broccoli slathered with melted cheese. One wonders if it is not a deeper flaw in the genre itself, sort of the frozen yogurt of movie genres (“Be ice cream or be nothing, zero stars”). The buddy comedy is meant to be affirmative, a cheerful hangout which makes us feel better; issues movies that make us feel good about the issues are false prophets performing wonders so blinding as to deceive even our most feted watchers. Combining the two is indeed a potent force: how else can we explain the fact that, like Rain Man before it, Green Book won Best Picture?

By now Green Book is an easy trigger for awards-season watchers. There was so much bad press, and so little of it, relatively speaking, about the movie itself, that the soft racism of the picture faded in comparison to the sins of Peter Farrelly and Viggo Mortensen and Nick Vallelonga. Either one is defensive about its victory or strident about its unworthiness, and all of this for a movie which is so mediocre that I can only imagine it will be covered by the sands of time as surely as no one cares about The Life of Emile Zola or The Broadway Melody any longer. (By my calculations, slightly outdated as they are, this is pretty firmly in the bottom third of Best Picture winners.) If Green Book does speak to a trend, it is one that is fairly new in our festival-to-awards-show circuit. It’s understood that the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival is basically guaranteed a nomination for Best Picture: since 2008, when Slumdog Millionaire won, only one People’s Choice Award winner has failed to snag a Best Picture nod, and that was Where Do We Go Now?, which is Lebanese. Since 2008, the People’s Choice Award winner has gone on to win Best Picture four times, at the same rate as the Golden Globe for Best Drama and two back of the BAFTA for Best Film, both of which are much further along in awards season. Here’s the list of movies since Slumdog to win at TIFF and secure a nomination for Best Picture :

  • 2008- Slumdog Millionaire
  • 2009- Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
  • 2010- The King’s Speech
  • 2012- Silver Linings Playbook
  • 2013- 12 Years a Slave
  • 2014- The Imitation Game
  • 2015- Room
  • 2016- La La Land
  • 2017- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • 2018- Green Book
  • 2019- Jojo Rabbit

(Like the rest of you, I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit yet, and I am basing what I am about to say on a number of reviews of the picture.) For three years now, the TIFF winner has been a pretentious, self-important drama which has read the Wikipedia article about some social tragedy. After reading, it has decided to get right on the line of good taste in the name of Art and then pull back at the last moment to ensure we have some cute, feel-good ending; it wasn’t so bad after all, you see. Green Book does not fool around on that line as much as Three Edgelords—”persons of color torturing” as a synonym for the slur is more offensive than getting Mahershala Ali to try fried chicken—but the ending is particularly schmaltzy, sugar plumbing whatever depths it can pretend to find. Weirdly enough, the only movie that doesn’t end in some triumph or silver lining from this list sloshing with melodrama is La La Land, a picture which is relentlessly cheerful and/or inspirational until its last few minutes, where it does something terribly interesting and wisely notes that its protagonists were wrong for each other. Indeed, La La Land is the one, with the potential exception of Jojo Rabbit, which presents a world of imaginative fantasy rather than the shouty elevator pitches which play at realism. Based on true stories (The King’s Speech12 Years a SlaveThe Imitation Game, Green Book) or centered on a school year’s worth of after-school specials (SlumdogPreciousSilver Linings PlaybookRoomThree Billboards), these movies present a world out of flux, a world of miseries heaped on and on until it seems our protagonist will break. How desperately these viewers of TIFF and their elite counterparts at the BAFTAs or the Oscars like to feel that something terrible can be solved in two hours. One of the criticisms of 12 Years a Slave was that it was just about, well, twelve years. In context of the picture it’s sort of ridiculous, given that Solomon Northup was real person kidnapped and enslaved for twelve years. But that criticism, in the context of these winners, makes much more sense. Our misery will never really last; our wrongs will be redressed. We will win 20 million rupees, work for our GED, overcome our depression with love and football, have an angel child, invite a black man over for Christmas. There’s a place for these movies, which carry on in the grand tradition of melodrama stretching back beyond Mizoguchi and Sirk, Griffith and Vidor. (How much they’re carrying compared to Osaka Elegy or All That Heaven Allows is debatable!) But it is passing strange to live in this twilight zone, where our most feted movies try so hard to shock, and fail so completely to move.

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