' ' Cinema Romantico: Green Book

Monday, February 18, 2019

Green Book

Director Peter Farrelly became famous on the backs of comedies, like “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), in which no sacred cow was left deliberately un-tipped. And Farrelly’s “Green Book”, frankly, feels cut from the same universe, a joke in the background of “There’s Something About Mary” perhaps, with a fake TV movie trailer describing “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” meets “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Indeed, if “Green Book” frequently seeks comedy through its story of a white and black man on a road trip through the Jim Crow Deep South, the jokes are rooted to clichés Farrelly timidly refuses to upend. No, this is more like Farrelly as Stanley Kramer, a well-meaning, good-hearted liberal who in his last major film nevertheless revealed racial and political blind spots, making a film less challenging than cozily reassuring. That’s “Green Book” pretty much. It doesn’t deign to “solve” race, at least, nor even pretend that everything’s hunky dory. Rather it professes to have two points-of-view even if it really only sees things through one character’s eyes.

“Green Book” is about a white man, Frank Vallelonga, better known as Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), becoming valet to a black concert pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), as the latter goes on a two-month tour through the Midwest and Deep South in 1962. This neatly defines “Green Book” as a movie of contrasts. Black and White; Uncouth and Refined; Rock ‘n’ Roll and Classical. The intention, then, is the characters’ respective journey to the middle ground, one drawn with the sort of unsubtle touch evoked in how Tony shoves a pastrami sandwich into his mouth, unconcerned with getting grease all over his fingers and crumbs in his lap.

Not that this is simultaneously a criticism of Mortensen’s performance. If anything or anyone embodies the intended middle ground it is Mortensen. He is not so much a caricature as he is wholly committed, taking the advice of the character’s father to always gives 100% as his actorly guidance, playing the whole part in the manner of Tony folding up an ENTIRE pizza and shoving it in his mouth. And the way he has Tony throw a couple juice glasses in the trash that have touched the hands of African-Americans, denoting his racism, is the same way he has Tony eventually confront a few rednecks, a similar bearing marking his obligatory enlightenment as surprisingly natural.

If Mortensen takes his cues from how his character eats then Ali takes his cues from how Dr. Shirley sips scotch, deliberately and all alone. One of the film’s three writers, Nick Vallelonga, the real Tony Lip’s son, has said that Shirley saw himself existing on an island, a sentiment which Ali plays straight to, not putting on airs but remaining aloof, so much that you can sense an invisible sort of emotional wall between the front seat and back seat in the myriad car scenes. He is purposeful in every gesture and line reading, underlining a severe consciousness about how his character presents himself to the world. And though Shirley cites the necessity of “dignity”, it is less dignity Ali gets at than fear, emitting a sense of not so much sanding away rough edges as sanding away everything, an understanding of the mid-American 20th century truth that a black man had to subsist by not standing out.

“Green Book”, however, comes across oddly incurious about Shirley’s music, the thing theoretically driving the whole plot, with Tony saying he plays like “Liberace, but better” and mostly content with that as a descriptor. The problem is not so much that Tony teaches Shirley about rock ‘n’ roll and whether that is true to life, but that even as Shirley learns about rock ‘n’ roll, neither the film nor Tony take any interest in Shirley’s classical music, betraying the film’s odd insistence at only looking through the looking glass one way. The pianist might well teach his valet a few things too, such as playing de Bergerac for Tony in the letters the latter writes to his wife, but these scenes remain rooted to Tony’s point-of-view, a trait that defines the film. Though “Green Book” is nominally about two men, it opens not by cutting back and forth between them but by introducing only Tony and his work and home life, and only introducing us to Shirley when Tony is introduced to him too. And Shirley’s lessons are conspicuously colorblind whereas Tony’s rock ‘n’ roll instruction, never mind fried chicken eating etiquette, are not, inadvertently underlining prevailing post-racial myths.

“Green Book” was inspired by a true story, much like 1989’s “Glory”, Edward Zwick’s telling of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Civil War Infantry regiment that took heat for its main character being white. That criticism might well have been valid from a pre-production standpoint, but the screenplay, written by a white man (Kevin Jarre), did carve out space for scenes entirely from a black perspective. What’s more, as I have written before, the movie ultimately became about its white protagonist trying to find some way to see the world through his black soldiers’ eyes. “Green Book”, though, rarely makes this attempt, simply seeking reconciliation without true atonement, evoked in the closing sequence where a gaggle of white people look up, slack-jawed, at a black man suddenly in their presence and then go on like they weren’t just weirded out, pulling the wool over their own eyes.

1 comment:

Drew @ Man About Words said...

I remember when the trailer dropped for this and I thought, "that looks nice," but nothing more. But the more I read about this the more I'm convinced this must be a real missed opportunity. I'll eventually see it, but I'm in no rush. Oscar is...ridiculous sometimes. Nice review!