We’ve failed as a nation if we think Hollywood producers should approve dreck like Green Book. Patronizing, obvious, and animated by a contempt for the intelligence of its audience, Green Book will do well at the Academy Awards, and, indeed, was made for peer approval. Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) looks determined to purge any trace of the raucous comedy of which he’s capable. At least Crash was ambitious. Green Book is that most gruesome of Hollywood hybrids: the comedy with a heart.
That Green Book, named after the twentieth century travel guide for black Americans wanting safe and comfortable passage, insists on the most conventional notions about race relations is one of its grosser ironies. After the nightclub at which he works closes for renovations, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) lands a job as a driver for pianist/composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). An offer to also assume the duties of tour manager Frank swiftly rejects. An amiable dunce quick with his fists, Frank is the sort of casual racist who throws away the water glasses used by the black handymen who visit his home and barely flinches when relatives suggest there’s something fishy about his wife interacting with those same men. So the pair hit the road, with the polished and scrupulously erudite Doc finessing Frank and the lowbrow Frank reminding Doc of the glories of fried chicken. Along the way, to quote Crimes and Misdemeanors‘ cynical TV producer played by Alan Alda, they learn deep values.
With the extra weight, the pursing of the lips with which actors like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor have suggested palookahood, and the infinite variations of his shrug, Mortensen gives another of his renditions of comfortable masculinity. He’s lucky, for Frank on the page is little more than greasy pasta fazool. Called upon to deliver Farrelly’s horrible dialogue with rounded vowels and a worn imitation of what an actor thinks an educated person sounds like, Ali is less comfortable, and who wouldn’t be with the procession of conventions that Farrelly presents as if they were kittens. Racist Southern sheriff? Check. Uptight musicians who learn to accept the lummox? Check. Doc’s wowing the locals with his technique? Check. He even learns to love Little Richard.
Whether critics judge, say, a book or film create in the sixties using the mores of 2018 is a legitimate debate; what isn’t is Green Book‘s pretending that the mores of the early pre-LBJ sixties need no examination. As Frank’s wife Linda Cardellini sits around the kitchen, charmed by Frank’s ghost written letters. Worse, Farrelly refuses to touch Doc’s homosexuality as anything but a plot point (Frank is dispatched to get him out of jail for soliciting in a public toilet). Black, gay, and a musician? In the 1960s? This is a heavy load for a film to carry, let alone an actor of even Ali’s resourcefulness, but it doesn’t matter. All it takes is a scenic road trip through the South for our differences to erode. If they erode fast enough, we might get lucky and be invited to Christmas dinner.