Acting Makes Up For What 'Green Book' Lacks

Jan 4, 2019

It’s interesting how a movie can be both awful and touching at the same time. Green Book pulls off that oxymoronic trick. The film’s a lame civil rights drama; a repeat of the already lame Driving Miss Daisy. It bogs down in terrible, aged white clichés about race and culture, and some of its moves are so obvious, contrived and simply stiff that your eyes roll, and you cringe as the obvious staggers across the screen.

This must be the season of comic talents turning serious. Adam McKay pulled off a wild picture of Dick Cheney in Vice, but Peter Farrelly  of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something about Mary is less successful with The Green Book, which slides so far down the slope of sentimentality that its black and white lead characters wind up hugging at Christmas.

Tony (Viggo Mortenson) is a goombah from the Bronx; he’s a dese and dose guy, a bouncer at the famed nightclub The Copacabana – and that’s after he was fired for punching his boss at the sanitation department. He’s hired to drive Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a brilliant African-American pianist, with his trio, on a tour in the south. Shirley is smart, talented, learned – and he’s a pretentious stiff. He interviews Tony dressed in a long gown and sitting on a throne. He wants to polish Tony’s diction, and he’s never eaten fried chicken.

Green Book tries to sort out these ridiculous stereotypes and use them to illustrate problems of race in America. But the movie loses the fight. It’s not written well enough to humanize Tony or Dr. Shirley, so it’s left with a couple of clowns instead of people.

Green Book is both well-intentioned and wrong-headed. A white man teaching a black man how to be black is a travesty.  The film spends its first half-hour painting Tony as a lovable thug, and by the time Tony and Dr. Shirley take their seats in the car – Tony driving, Shirley in the back with a lap robe -- there’s not a chance that Shirley can grab equal footing in the movie. Tony teaches Shirley about Little Richard and black pop music. Shirley hasn’t the sense to stay out of trouble – white thugs beat him in a bar, and Tony must save the day. It’s simply not believable when Shirley is caught with a white man naked in a southern YMCA. He can’t be that stupid, and if something like that happened to Donald Shirley, the movie needs a way to show earlier the naivete in this complex man.

The stupidities of Green Book never stop, but a few times the actors make you forget what the rest of the movie lacks. Tony teases Shirley into tasting fried chicken for the first time -- it’s a dreary, obvious, cloying lesson about stereotypes, cultural assumptions and stuff like that.  But the actors make it a game of one kid taunting another into taking a chance.

Tony in the front seat turns to Shirley in the back and holds out a chicken leg.  ‘Eat it,” he says. “Eat it.” Shirley turns up his nose – literally. He doesn’t want it; it’ll get grease on his blanket. Tony mocks him, and finally Shirley takes the leg, holds it in his long elegant pianist’s fingers and eats, like Eve giving into the snake to bite the apple. The stakes are lower, of course. Then Tony the slob shows Shirley how to fling the bones out the window. Shirley knows it’s a low rent thing to do, but he does it – and his toss is so delicate that it doesn’t matter how limited the script is, and how off base: Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali have a connection that’s of their own making, and it’s delightful.

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