If “Green Book” were released 20 years ago, I think I’d be more impressed. Coming in 2018, however, this true story about world-famous black concert pianist Don Shirley, who hires white chauffeur Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga to escort him through the Jim Crow south of 1962, stands as an antiquated and shallow friendship across the racial divide that is completely out of step with the current political moment.
Director Peter Farrelly (“Kingpin,” “There’s Something About Mary”) uses a light touch to tackle a heavy topic. While not without its occasional charms — both Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen deliver strong performances — the film ultimately falls flat as it follows a predictable story full of corny, sometimes insulting detours, on its way to a pat, feel-good ending.
The screenplay, written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, keeps the story fixed on Tony’s perspective. In doing so, it presents the refined Don as a prickly and enigmatic foil. It’s a classic odd-couple pairing that expectedly progresses from contentious to warm as Don makes Tony more worldly and Tony teaches Don to loosen up — and eat fried chicken.
That’s not a joke. At one point, a white character, incredulous that a black character has never eaten fried chicken before, goads him into eating some. The scene, which is meant to depict a moment of bonding between Tony and Don, is played with a comical tone that is either unconcerned with or unaware of how ridiculous and offensive it is.
Throughout the film Don’s character is presented as similarly out of touch with African-American culture. In another scene, he claims to have never listened to Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, despite being an accomplished jazz musician. The questionable decision to show Don as removed from his culture feels insulting and unwarranted. In making the character appear peculiar and strange to Tony, the film has overwritten Don as a person in his own right. Through Vallelonga’s lens, he’s a tragic character, a lonely drunk whose genius, race and sexuality has isolated him from everyone.
It’s no wonder Shirley’s family, which was not contacted about the film until after its completion, has criticized it for its inaccurate representation of their relative and called for a boycott. In addition to these misrepresentations, the film also erases Shirley’s relationship with his family, alleging he was estranged from them, when the opposite was the case.
Those inaccuracies extend to the film’s historical backdrop. As the characters move deeper into the South, the ugly reality of segregation begins to manifest. In certain towns, Don must stay at a blacks-only hotel. He is denied service at various white-owned businesses, and even told to use an outhouse at the home of people who have invited him to play a private concert. While these moments capture the indignities of the Jim Crow South on a superficial level, the film never meaningfully confronts the true terror of being a black person in the South during this period.
Ali, who, in the face of criticism of the film, has said he did the best he could with the material he was provided, did just that. His Don is regal and exacting, proud yet vulnerable. And, while the true extent of his isolation is debatable, Ali imbues the role with affecting melancholy.
By contrast, Mortensen’s Tony is a bull in a china shop. A boorish, unsophisticated working-class stiff, Mortensen brings a good-hearted warmth to the character who, despite his coarse nature, we never doubt will do the right thing.
Linda Cardellini, meanwhile, brings some great energy to the small supporting role of Tony’s wife, Dolores.
After languishing at the box office, “Green Book” has gained momentum heading into the Oscars after picking up three Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Ali). But while it’s shaping up to be a real contender, the film’s outdated, uncomplicated feel-good take on racial politics doesn’t merit such recognition.
If that’s what you’re looking for, by all means enjoy. But if you’re in the market for more nuanced and relevant explorations of race, two other Best Picture nominees, “Black Panther” and “BlacKKKlansman” are far better choices.