Rating: 3 out of 5
Feel good movies have become a staple of the American film landscape, every four months or so audiences shuffle into theaters just to smile. They have a bad reputation on the critical side of the aisle, as they are often schmaltzy, sentimental and a tad overbearing but occasionally they win awards, even Oscars (for whatever that’s worth). Green Book is another entry in this long held tradition doing nothing to elevate it’s material above genre fare, but only the most cynical and cold hearted viewer won’t enjoy the ride.
This was an easy movie to make, it was also a really easy film to mess up. The story at its base is heartwarming, sweet and most of all true. Green Book follows pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he travels through the the deep south of the United States in the 1960’s, he a black man, requires a bit of protection on this journey, enter Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). The movement of the story is about what you’d expect, Tony acts as a driver to the Doctor, they share things about each other’s cultures and personal lives. This could’ve been a really ridiculous and corny movie (and it is) but the earnestness of the material written by Tony’s own son Nick Vallelonga (who acts in the film as well) packs so much warmth into every frame that it avoids the more melodramatic aspects of biopics for the most part.
You’ll still get a conveniently placed emotional monologue in the rain but the difference here as opposed to the myriad of other movies this cliche has played out in, is that this movie has a deep respect and even love for it’s characters, something that seems frighteningly absent in the current filmmaking landscape. The three screenwriters deserve top honors, this script moves at a clip, there’s laughs and cries in all the right places. The chemistry between the two leads is just magic. Mortensen delves deep into the physicality of his role while Ali shines with grace and poise. They make for a delightful pair to cross the United States with, like all the best friendships theirs is at first reluctant but uncontrollable once it begins.
The moments that occasionally feel a little flat are the dramatic ones where the film attempts to make its own comments on race relations. In a different film, the audience may have wanted more of a social commentary but Green Book’s attempts to veer into that area are often heavy handed or confused. For the former there is a scene halfway through the film where the engine of their car overheats and the two men are forced to pull over by a farm where black men, women and children all work away in the burning, southern sun. This moment could’ve been huge, absolutely gigantic, it could’ve been the film equivalent of Earl Sweatshirt’s “Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks”, but just as that feeling resonates a string section comes in, there are too many close ups, the scene adds more elements to the mix that it can handle. The use of music can often drown the powerful moments of this film, even scenes of the doctor playing, slowly fade out into ambient, warm strings, suggesting a smile, when it should be leaving a bruise. The latter, is the scene where Tony Lip finally presses his employer on his disconnection from contemporary black culture. In 2018, I’m not sure that conversation ignited by Viggo Mortensen telling Mahershala Ali he’s not as black as he is should’ve been treated with the brevity that it was… that conversation deserves a much, much bigger room than perhaps even the screen can allow (especially in the wake of Mortensen accidentally using the n-word at a press conference).
So does it play for keeps? Absolutely not. In an age when biopics have become so heavy, dreary and clinical here is one that has a big, beating heart. While Green Book, much like Tony Lip, doesn’t always use it’s head, it always moves assuredly forward. The direction by Peter Farrelly (yes that Peter Farrelly) is occasionally notable, some of the lighting decisions are particularly inspired but for the most part it doesn’t dare to paint outside the box. And why should it? That would almost disrespect the innate honestness this story requires, this tale belongs more than anything to it’s two leads who imbue their roles with gracious care and respect often ignored by Oscar season biopic fodder. So if you are looking to wander out of a cineplex with little more than a big smile, Green Book is the movie for you.