With the current rise of white supremacy in America and the repulsive violence it brings with it, this is either an opportune time or a very inappropriate one to tell the true, heartwarming story of a white man and a black man who become friends despite their difference. It all depends on how deftly it’s handled. Peter Farrelly’s Green Book handles it with oven mitts. It says a lot that the running joke about fried chicken and the apparent KFC product placement are actually among the least offensive ways this movie handles race and just about everything else as well.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, a nightclub bouncer and sorta kinda connected guy in early 1960s New York. Out of work and strapped for cash going into the holiday season, he takes a gig driving a classical pianist name Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his tour through the deep South. If you guessed that they overcome both external adversity and their own personal differences to learn a little more about the world, each other and themselves then, congratulations, you’ve seen a movie before.
In fact, most of us have probably seen a lot of Green Book before, so creakily rested atop shopworn tropes is it. Tony’s family is a babbling saucepot of fuhgeddaboudit stereotypes as well as some regular old movie ones, like the wife played by an actor (Linda Cardellini) seventeen years younger than Mortensen. If Don gets saddled with fewer clichés, it’s only because, though the movie occasionally steers into two-hander territory, Tony is the clear lead.
One of the most egregious of Green Book’s formulaic strokes is in the depiction of the Vallelonga’s financial straits. They have money problems in the way only people in the movies due. They talk about it but we don’t actually see them lack for anything. The rent is always almost due.
Once we hit the road with Tony and Don, though, we get to move on into other recognizable patterns, most of which take the form of some cutesy culture clash comedy or other. The rough but benign racial friction is like a PG-13 48 Hrs. while the male bonding road trip shenanigans are pure Planes, Trains & Automobiles, complete with the rush to get home in time for a family holiday dinner. Familiar as it may be, however, it’s in these moments that Green Book is at its best. Mortensen and Ali may not have reputations as funny actors but, with comedy veteran Farrelly behind the camera, their acting chops and palpable chemistry make the laughs come genuinely and in rapid succession.
But let’s return to the question of race and racism. Screenwriters Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son) and Brian Hayes Currie actually wade up to the edge of some complex, thorny territory on occasion, before retreating to more comfortable platitudes and self-righteous stances. Still—mostly thanks to Ali’s performance—we actually witness some of Don’s personal, internal struggles. When Tony utters the classic bigot phrase “you people,” Don is taken aback. Of course, it’s unfair, ignorant and harmful to lump all black people into one group. But Don has to confront the fact that, as a wealthy classical musician, trained and educated at Swiss boarding schools, he has distressingly little in common with the culture and lives of other black Americans. Is he one of those “people”? There is no easy answer to that, which is why Green Book quickly backs off it and into more simplistic scenarios. In the most galling of these, a cop north of the Mason-Dixon line is a friendly relief to Tony and Don, a clear juxtaposition to his southern brethren, despite the fact that we in the audience are all aware that unarmed black men and boys have been murdered by police in Minnesota, Ohio, New York City and other colder climes in recent years. Green Book would rather bury its head in a past that never was than to be relevant to a present it finds too unpleasant to address.