Movie Review: Green Book

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PG-13 | 2h 9min 

Director: Peter Farrelly

Stars: Viggo MortensenMahershala AliLinda Cardellini

by Jason Koenigsberg

In 1989 the movie Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture over the likes of other nominees such as Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot. It starred Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy and was about their decades-long friendship as her older African-American chauffuer who drove his rich mean old boss around the South during the Civil Rights era. Despite its accolades, the movie was criticized then for its depiction of African-Americans as uneducated, subservient do-gooders for white elites. It is hard to imagine a film like Driving Miss Daisy being made today. It’s director Bruce Beresford tried to recapture that same feeling a few years ago with Eddie Murphy in Mr. Church (2016), but nobody saw it. But since tolerance and political correctness are a very high priority for Hollywood these days, they found a clever way to turn a film like Driving Miss Daisy upside down. Enter Green Book. This is Driving Miss Daisy for 2018 in every possible way. A movie designed to make white people feel better about racism and black people feel empowered because of the depiction of the main characters. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the man who brought us Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something About Mary (1998), Green Book makes racism funny, but it sort of has to in order to make the movie enjoyable and it almost works… almost. 

The film opens up right away telling the audience this is based on a true story, as every advertisement has embedded that it is based on a true friendship and the friendship theme is strong in this film, no credits until the epilogue. The first shot is of the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. A fight breaks out inside and we meet our main character Tony (Viggo Mortensen doing his best Robert DeNiro from the 90’s impersonation) break up the fight, throw out the instigator and beat him up outside the club. He needs to find work while the Copa is shut down for a few months and gets a job driving a classical pianist for his tour of the mid-west and deep south. The big twist, he’s black. So he deals with obvious small talk ramifications about a white Italian man driving a ‘mooly‘ (meaning eggplant) around and working for a black man. He has his own inhibitions and racist thoughts but keeps it professional because he needs the money and it is a well-paying job. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley with a dignity and class that cannot be disputed. This is one of his first major roles since his Oscar win for Moonlight (2016) and his performance here shows that victory was no fluke. He is ready for bigger, high profile roles in major movies and makes the most out of what he is given here in Green Book. The title, by the way, comes from a motorists guide for African-Americans driving through the South so they know what hotels to stay in, restaurants they can eat in, and roads to steer clear from. 

This movie literally copies the exact outline from Driving Miss Daisy except turning the usual stereotypes of white and black upside down. Mahershala Ali is well educated, articulate, classy and aloof. Viggo Mortensen is streetwise, uneducated, has a poor vocabulary and blue collar all the way. Green Book even copies Driving Miss Daisy‘s attempt at symbolism only takes itself too seriously. In Driving Miss Daisy there is a scene where Freeman takes a can of salmon and she accuses him of stealing a 33 cent can from her. Here Mortensen takes a gemstone and Ali insists he go give it back, pay for it or he will buy it for him. The piece of jade becomes their ‘lucky rock’ and your eyes may all roll now as they will when you see it in the movie. 

Both of the lead characters are easy to empathize with because both of the actors deliver outstanding performances worthy of their reputations and more than this script asks for and quite frankly more than the movie itself deserves. Mortensen transcends just playing a DeNiro/Pacino type and makes his character his own, further solidifying himself as one of the most underrated actors of his era. He actually gained a lot of weight for the role, like De Niro, no fat suits are in this actors repertoire. The performances work and make Green Book almost worth recommending. The two actors are stellar and form a friendship onscreen that seems genuine. One might wish (at least I did) that the movie was only about the two men and nothing else. I would have loved to have seen Green Book simply be filmed as a dialogue between the two old friends reminiscing about their travels. This would have worked better as a two-man play instead of a full-blown Hollywood movie. The reason is that the two lead actors are far and above the best part of Green Book. By creating a believable friendship Mortensen and Ali are the glue that holds this movie together and makes it not as excruciatingly patronizing as it could have been. The movie has some funny and commendable moments otherwise but without a doubt the best parts are the two leads and their chemistry. They transform into their characters and audiences will believe everything they say. 

The rest of Green Book is not a total loss. The costumes, cars, and sets are all accurate for the time period and it is notable how the movie makes the audience figure out that it takes place in the year 1962 without just flat out putting the year on the screen. Linda Cardellini is good in her rather thankless role as Tony’s wife. The film has a fine production value overall. It looks great but that clean and polished look works against Green Book as it gives a very glossy and shiny look at the Jim Crow laws. As mentioned earlier, this movie makes racism funny and it kind of has to in some parts in order to be entertaining. It never shows the true horrors of the South during the Civil Rights Era otherwise this movie would scare away its audience and people would not walk out as happy at the end. Is that responsible of the filmmakers to depict a friendlier version of segregation? It depends who the audience is. Green Book would be a good movie for children to see to learn about the Civil Rights movement. It feels like a screenplay for a 1980’s back to school special with millions of dollars invested in it.

It also would be good for real racists to see to learn that even though they may have nothing in common with people from a different class or a different color, we are all humans and all need friends to help us. But that is probably too idealistic and giving the movie and real racist people way too much credit. The biggest problem with Green Book is that it is too obvious and too patronizing. We all get it, racism is bad. Black people are capable of doing anything white people can and vice versa. We are all human beings and should treat each other as equals regardless of race and class. This lesson has been in movies countless times for decades. Green Book shows us nothing new except for outstanding performances from its two lead actors.

Also, this movie has no problem being racist about Asian Americans. It was only a brief moment but that small scene involving an Asian man was discomforting. Green Book is all high and mighty about blacks and whites getting along. They ignore the other races that live in our country and have been discriminated against for years. The United States is more colors than just black and white, and most movies fail to acknowledge the red, yellow, brown and various shades of tan ethnicities that make up our population. In 2018 with all the controversy surrounding other races. It is a shame that Green Book sweeps them under the rug only to focus on the fact that black people can be shown not as a stereotype and white people can be working class. The much-maligned Best Picture winner Crash (2005) at least can never be accused of only depicting two races on screen. 

Skip Green Book, unless you have literally never seen a movie about America during the Civil Rights movement and want a history lesson, or to show your kids a history lesson about what life was like back then. Here is the scene from Driving Miss Daisy about the can of salmon as mentioned above. 

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