Review: 'Green Book' a pleasant ride over a bumpy road
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By Chip Chandler — Producer
There are no surprises in Green Book, except for maybe how deeply you come to care about its main characters.
That's not necessarily a knock on the crowd-pleasing drama about unexpected racial rapprochement in the Deep South in the early 1960s, which opens in Amarillo on Friday, following a Thursday preview.
But I couldn't help but constantly want more from the film. The performances by stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are superb throughout, but their talent and the actual stakes of this story demanded something deeper.
That said, director Peter Farrelly (working without brother Bobby and without most of the coarse humor that has defined his career thus far) and his stars tell a fine tale — a hopeful one, and we surely do need some hope these days.
Ali plays Dr. Donald Shirley, a piano phenomenon who's about to embark on a tour of the Deep South with his trio (a white cellist and a white string bassist). Between the virulent racism and discrimination in lodging and restaurants, black men, clearly, couldn't travel safely or even conveniently in the early 1960s in the South, so Shirley's record label paid for a driver to accompany him, using the titular book, an invaluable guide to traveling through Jim Crow territory.
Enter Mortensen's Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana looking for temporary work when the club shuts down for renovations.
So they embark, and Tony soon gets a ring-side seat to seeing how racist laws and people complicate every facet of Dr. Shirley's life — racist shop owners, racist barflies, racist cops and racist music-lovers who'll hire Dr. Shirley to play for them but won't extend him the courtesy of using their guest bathroom.
Early on, we know that Tony is a racist, but he's presented as someone with a heart that's open to changing. Shirley, for his part, is depicted as impossibly (in every sense) out of touch with his own blackness. They both need to grow, the film asserts.
So here's the thing about that: Sure, everyone should always be willing to change, but even suggesting that Tony's racism and Dr. Shirley's fussiness are at all equivalent messes to be cleaned up is, as they say, problematic.
It's clear through Ali's performance that Dr. Shirley has built walls around himself as a survival mechanism (especially considering one mid-film reveal), but we mostly only get to infer that. Farelly, who co-wrote the script with Tony's son, Nick Vallelonga, tells this story strictly through Tony's eyes, often reducing Dr. Shirley to being the vehicle by which Tony conquers his racism.
Which, yes, that's a worthy and noble goal, but why is it Dr. Shirley's job to fix this white man's mess? Because that's how Hollywood movies about racism tend to work, right? The noble black man or woman shows the racist but ultimately good-hearted white man or woman that, see, not all black people are as bad as they think. It's a crutch and it's tired and it's too comforting and it's often more than little dehumanizing.
I wanted to see this story from Dr. Shirley's perspective (so did his surviving family, it should be noted). As fun as Tony is to watch, thanks to Mortensen's great performance, there are so many more layers to Dr. Shirley. We know they're there, thanks to Ali's superb work, but they're never given the primacy that they deserve.
Yet, despite all of those misgivings, Green Book is still mostly successful and certainly worth seeing because Ali and Mortensen put in the work, even when the script lets them down.