By Claudia Puig
1 ½ stars out of 4
When did racism become funny? Shockingly tone-deaf and shallow, Green Book tries to find humor in this serious subject, just as it purports to be based on fact, even though the film opens with the disclaimer “Inspired by a true story.”
Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga is the son of the Italian-American man upon whom the story is based, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen.) Vallelonga, along with co-writer Bryan Hayes Currie and co-writer/director Peter Farrelly, tell the story as a schmaltzy bromance, rather than as a nuanced drama.
Set in the early 1960s, the story centers on Tony, a two-bit gangster with ties to local organized crime. Tony is also a nasty racist. After two African-American workmen drink water out of glasses offered by Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini), Tony dumps the glasses in the trash. With that gesture we know exactly who this guy is.
Tony is hired to drive a classical pianist on a concert tour in the South over the course of two months. The musician is a highly cultured black man, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a piano virtuoso with three PhDs. Tony Lip is a tough guy hired not only to drive, but to ward off trouble as his black passenger navigates discriminatory practices during that era.
Nick regularly uses insulting racist terms like “chink” when referring to Asians and “jungle bunnies” for African-Americans. When his wife learns that her husband will be chauffeuring a black man, she says: “You wouldn’t last a week with him.”
But, of course, he does-- or there would be no movie.
The title refers to the “Negro Motorists Green Book,” a real-life travel guide to hotels, motels and restaurants that safely welcome black people in an area that’s overwhelmingly hostile to them. (The guidebook, handed to Tony as he embarks on the road trip, was widely used from 1936-1966.)
While the main performances are strong—Mortensen and Ali are convincing in their roles-- the scenarios are clichéd, simplistic and often offensive. Tony introduces Don to the pleasures of eating fried chicken, playing off a racist stereotype. He condescendingly scolds Don when the classical musician isn’t familiar with black R&B singers Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. Other supposedly funny episodes occur along the way, highlighting the differences between the two men: Don Shirley is educated, well-spoken and dignified, Tony Vallelonga is foul-mouthed, crass and hot-headed. They are a pair of opposites and the movie strains to be a blend of buddy picture/ road movie.
Green Book minimizes real racial inequality, by trying to find superficial humor in it. Don was confined to sleep in blacks-only motels, and many dining rooms and bathrooms were off-limits to him, even while he played in gilded concert halls before avid music lovers.
It’s a conventional movie that never should have made it to the upper echelons of a best picture Oscar nomination. With its cringe-inducing sequences, it reminds us that some history is just too painful and ugly to be reduced to cutesy scenarios and obvious jokes.
Perhaps the affection Academy voters feel for this movie is based on wishful thinking, a well-intentioned yearning for interracial healing. It might be easier to like if the current volatile state of American race relations—with inflammatory invective a key part of President Trump’s discourse--wasn’t still mired in inequality. This supposedly “feel good” movie feels particularly out of touch, coddling white viewers with the false assumption that racism is a thing of the past.
There is likely a good movie, perhaps a documentary, to be told about the history of the Negro Motorists’ Green Book, one that would do a better job of exploring a complex problem. And there might be a meaningful movie about the unexpected alliance between Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley that more profoundly explores black-white relations. Hampered by a “white savior “ complex, Green Book is a glib, caricatured and insensitive movie that reduces an enduring, dangerous societal problem to a calculated fable with a happy ending.