Set in 1962, the 2018 film Green Book tells the story of two men.
Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-acclaimed pianist who lives a regal life. How regal is Dr. Shirley’s life? He’s got a throne in his living room! Being both black and gay, Shirley knows that he’s destined to always be on the outside of American society but he refuses to allow anyone to take away his dignity or devalue his intelligence. Shirley is scheduled to do a concert tour in the Midwest and the Deep South and his record company knows that he’s going to need protection during his trip. For that matter, he’s also going to need a driver.
Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is actually named Frank Vallelgona but everyone calls him Tony Lip because he can talk his way out of almost any situation. He’s a casually prejudiced Italian who lives in the Bronx. He’s a professional bouncer and he can drive a car too! He’s in desperate need of money and he doesn’t want to have to go to work for the Mafia. When Shirley’s record company contacts him about spending two months as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard, it could be the solution to all of his financial problems.
Soon, Tony is driving Shirley through the South. Tony smokes in the car and Shirley snaps at him. Shirley doesn’t appreciate fried chicken so Tony convinces him to try it. Tony punches a cop and ends up in jail so Shirley calls his friend Bobby Kennedy. Eventually, Tony and Shirley even become friends and together….
THEY SOLVE CRIMES!
No, not really. Instead, Tony encourages Shirley to loosen up and enjoy life a little bit more. Meanwhile, Shirley teaches Tony how to write a decent letter to his wife. Tony introduces Shirley to rock and roll. Shirley introduces Tony to high society. At the end of the film, we’re told that, in real life, Shirley and Tony remained friends until the end of their days.
It’s a crowd-pleasing ending. It’s also one that’s been described as being inaccurate. While it is true that Tony Lip (who later had a career as a character actor in gangster films) did drive Don Shirley around the South during his 1962 concert tour, Shirley’s family maintained that Shirley never considered him to be a friend but instead just viewed him as being an employee. At the time of the film’s initial release, it was also pointed out that, while the script was co-written by Tony Lip’s son, no one bothered to reach out to Don Shirley’s family during the production.
When Green Book was nominated for best picture, a lot of observers assumed that the controversy over its accuracy would keep the film from winning the top prize. The fact that Peter Farrelly was not nominated for best director was also seen as an indicator that Green Book was not a serious contender. Of course, to the shock (and, it must be said, anger) of many, Green Book did win the Oscar for Best Picture, defeating Roma, BlackKklansman, Black Panther, A Star is Born, The Favourite, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody. During the days immediately after the Oscars, there was a definite feeling of embarrassment in the air. No one, it seemed, could quite accept that — out of all the films released in 2018 — the Academy had declared Green Book to the best.
Why was Green Book such an unpopular winner? Setting aside the controversy over the film’s historical accuracy (or lack thereof), Green Book is just a painfully conventional movie. At a time when many directors were testing the limits of narrative and taking cinema in new and different directions, Green Book was a film that was almost defiantly old-fashioned and predictable. At a time when filmmakers were being praised for their willingness to keep audiences off-balance, Peter Farrelly crafted about as blatant a crowd pleaser as had ever been released. Not since Alan Arkin shouted, “Argo fuck yourself!,” had a film been so obvious about its desire to be loved. Even the film’s best scenes have a generic quality to them. You never find yourself thinking, “Only a cinematic visionary like Peter Farrelly could have made a film like Green Book!”
Beyond that, Green Book is another film that deals with the issue of race in America in the safest and most anodyne way possible. Tony Lip starts out as prejudiced. Then he spends two months driving around a black man and suddenly, he’s not prejudiced anymore. This the type of approach that may drive intersectional film critics crazy on twitter but audiences tend to like it because it leaves them feeling good about the state of the world. “Yes,” the film says, “things aren’t perfect but all we have to do is spend two months in a car together and everything will be okay.”
The first time I watched Green Book, I thought it was blandly pleasant, predictable and a bit forgettable. I also thought it was well-acted. Last night, I rewatched the film for this review and …. well, my feelings pretty much remain the same. Sometimes, a conventional film will benefit from the intimacy of the small screen but that’s not the case with Green Book. If anything, watching this film in my living room (as opposed to in a theater with a gigantic screen) made me realize that, when I first saw Green Book, I was perhaps a bit too kind in my evaluation of the film’s lead performances. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are good, charismatic actors and that natural charisma serves them well in Green Book. But neither one of them really gives that interesting of a performance. Despite their roles being based on real people, they’re both playing cliches and, as a result, you never really go emotionally involved with either one of them.
I can understand why Green Book won best picture. It’s competently made, conventionally liberal, and full of good intentions. Given that the Academy uses rank-choiced voting, it’s probable that Green Book won not because it was everyone’s favorite movie but because it was everyone’s 2nd or 3rd choice. Hopefully, this year, the Academy will pick something a little bit more interesting for its top prize.