Green Book - Review

Green Book is a racially confused and manipulative film, with fine acting from the leads and a slightly above average script.

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It would take a near perfect script to make a film that is equal parts comedy and drama. The two genres certainly mix, but typically sacrifice one for the other. The formula Hollywood has figured out seems to be that a heavy drama with infrequent humor goes over much better than the opposite. Films like A Raisin in the Sun, Mid90s, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post do this very well, and would be categorized as dramas. Peter Farrelly’s Green Book goes for something very broad, and despite its tight script, fails to make the comedy/drama work without sacrifices.

There is a lot of driving in this film. Without interesting dialogue this could have dragged the film to a crawl, but thankfully, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are here to succeed the written word. They are the most consistent players in Green Book, Mortensen in particular showing a comic side I can’t claim to have seen. His last film, 2016’s Captain Fantastic, felt like the start of a second wind for the beloved but often forgotten actor. While most were busy reliving the glory days of The Lord of the Rings, he was starring in one of the best films of that year, in a character so set in his ways he can’t imagine changing his life for anything but his family. That is essentially the character he is playing in Green Book, to a much more sinister degree, and while Mahershala Ali does a fine job as the affluent and ostracized Don Shirley, this is Mortensen’s role.

Green Book works as a travelogue of Tony Lip (Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Ali) as they drive across the deep American south in the 1960s. Shirley is a skilled concert pianist, and Lip is a club worker at the Copacabana. Their roles complement each other well, Lip’s rugged demeanor and profane sensibilities alongside Shirley’s high society pomp. The writers did an admirable job building the pair’s friendship in a way that feels like real time. If you’re on the fence about seeing Green Book, this is the reason to see it. Mortensen and Ali are a solid duo, and while this is no Dumb and Dumber, it is sure to provide at least a few laughs. Beyond this point, though, the film becomes difficult.

Along with its comedic ambitions, Green Book is also a racial examination. There is no shortage of high quality films that examine racism today, and through simple logic, Green Book is at a disadvantage. It is written as a comedy, and focuses on the white man as the main character. This is a story of changing perceptions, so it makes some sense that the main arc would be a white man’s change of heart, but using the black character as a means to change the white character’s life is both ugly and unoriginal. Ali is superbly talented actor, but his character is so unexplored that he feels more like a moral compass for Lip than an actual person sitting in the backseat. It also places the police in a confounding position, where at one point they pull Lip and Shirley over purely on racial grounds, and then again for a flat tire. The second moment is reactionary to the first, meant to make you think that the characters are bound for jail on Christmas Eve, but the cop turns out not to be a racist and lets them go without a second look. While this is definitely plausible, it paints a confused picture of the law in 1960, one that functions on random preference rather than systemic racism. There is no reason for the officer to act any differently in the second situation, which is just lazy writing. It’s not the only time Green Book cuts corners to make racism simple, which is not only inaccurate, but insulting. It’s a pleasant watch, but viewing it is like staring at progress through a keyhole. Yes, things have changed, but there is still a lot of evil in the world that cannot be ignored simply because we want to tell a nice story.