‘Green Book’ only goes skin-deep

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (2018)

Green Book (2018)

Directed by Peter Farrelly

In “Green Book,” one of the minor characters says earnestly that “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s a nice line in context, but it rings pretty hollow when you try to attribute it to the movie as a whole. A movie about a proud black musician (Mahershala Ali) on his first tour through the Deep South with his casually racist driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen) feels like it could’ve spoken to Americans from all walks of life in a meaningful way, but it really just puts a new spin on what “Driving Miss Daisy” (a movie I love dearly) did nearly 30 years ago. It’s just the Oscar-baiting type of film you could expect to see come out on Thanksgiving, vying for Best Picture with its unoffending pleasantness. That’s not to say that it is not at times unpleasant. Any movie starring a black man and set during the Civil Rights Era is bound to have some unpleasantness. But “Green Book” is only just unpleasant enough that it’s not too difficult to remedy by the end of its run time. Cartoonish racists get what’s coming to them and casual racists learn the error of their ways. “Green Book” is the very definition of “crowd-pleaser”—it accomplishes that, and nothing else.

Viggo Mortensen packs on a few pounds to play the tough guy greaser type with the crude language and the unsophisticated vocabulary. But the dumb guy schtick gets old after a while. The transformation from the chiseled outdoorsman we saw in 2016’s “Captain Fantastic” to the gross slob we see in “Green Book” is a testament to Mortensen’s abilities as a character actor, though. Tony’s exact opposite is the articulate and honorable musician Don Shirley, played by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. Unlike Ali’s character in “Moonlight,” Shirley is out-of-touch with black culture (or what the screenwriters, including Tony’s real-life son, thought black culture was in the 60s). This will likely ruffle some PC feathers, and perhaps it should. “Green Book” certainly feels like a step down from “Moonlight” in terms of addressing its subject in any substantial way.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (2018)

But when you consider that director Peter Farrelly started with “Dumb and Dumber” and then went dumber (“Shallow Hal”) and dumber (“Stuck on You”) and dumber (“Movie 43”) through the years, “Green Book” is actually a remarkable step up. Still, to award “Green Book” any Oscar nominations would be to reward pleasantness over profundity. If real conversations about race relations in America scare you, “Green Book” is more your speed—but I really do recommend you follow it up with something a little deeper, like “Blindspotting” or “BlacKkKlansman.”


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