I understand what it's like to be persecuted... no one likes my piano playing skills either.
So the World Seems to Love Green Book
The word of mouth on Green Book is no less than stellar to say the least; critics love the movie, audiences seem to adore it, it received multiple nominations for the Golden Globes in 2019 and actually garnered a couple of wins which included Best Motion Picture in the Musical/Comedy category. There’s even major talk about Green Book scoring a couple of nominations for the Oscars this year. So does the film live up to the hype? Is it as great as everyone seems to praise it as being? I believe that it’s good, but I don’t think it’s great. And right there I feel like I made the kiss of death by not immediately calling this a masterpiece or one of the best films to come out of 2018. Don’t get me wrong, I do like it. I had a very good time with the film, particularly watching the chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, who work fantastically off of each other. However, there’s nothing about this movie that feels groundbreaking or anything vastly different from what I’ve seen before in terms of this specific genre. It’s a formula that’s been done in several movies like this and it seems to be a formula used once every year in time for the awards season; it’s another Hidden Figures or The Help, a story that deals with race relations in the safest way possible for the general audience. It’s a film designed to be a crowd pleaser and that’s about it, there’s nothing wrong with that though, not at all. It is good to occasionally have something like Green Book come out just to have a fun sit with and not push the material any further than that. For me, however, to earn the award of Best Picture, a movie has to be more original or provocative or innovative than this. I know that me saying this will lead people to the impression that I hate the movie, I don’t hate the movie. Far from it. I find this to be a very likable little flick, but I’m not going to give it the high praise that everyone else seems to be giving the movie.
Tony Vallelonga, or Tony Lip as he is called among certain circles, is a bit of a wise guy Italian living in the lower-class that takes pretty much any job that he can get in order to provide for his family. One day an African-American classical pianist by the name of Dr. Don Shirley requests Tony to be his personal driver to tour with in the deep south of America, a region that is known to be less than open to the black community at that time. Tony is to act as Don’s driver and bodyguard in order to make the tour locations safely and by also using what is known as a Green Book; which is a small travel guide that shows what particular places are okay for African-Americans to visit in the south and what to avoid. From there they have to make it to each individual concert while trying not to run into any trouble along the way, as well as trying not to run into much trouble amongst themselves either.
So, from the plot it is probably easy to gather how the movie will go in terms of its character arcs. Tony is from the lower-class, fairly uneducated and a bit of a big mouth that doesn’t mind bending the rules from time to time in order to get something he wants. Plus, he has his own personal qualms with working for a black man since he starts out not exactly accepting of other races. While Don is an upper-class citizen, highly educated and maintains a strict code of ethics, but struggles with segregation somewhat differently than most people did back then. At first the two clash with one another in their ideologies, then as the story goes along they slowly start to warm up to each other’s company, then the third act hits with the two clashing again, and by the end of it they are friends that have learned what it’s like to be on the other side of the tracks. Yes, it is predictable; from the first act I was able to figure out pretty much exactly where the film was going. What made this movie still extremely entertaining was the two leads and their humorous comradery throughout the film, which is the heart of it all.
It May Be Familiar, But It’s Still Fun!
Every conversation, every argument that Tony and Don have had me laughing and smiling because these are two very charismatic actors in the roles that are working overtime to make something special here. While the film as a whole may not be special, their chemistry is just that. The blunt, tough guy act of Mortensen made for a terrific clashing companion piece against Ali’s more civilized and snobbish approach. My favorite parts of the dialog are them talking about music or when the topic of Tony writing letters to his family comes into play, that’s when I found the most joy from the film. It was fun to see how they insulted and complimented one another in an endearing way. I appreciated how the two characters grew through simply their chats. Don is blissfully unaware of the modern pop culture that African-Americans have influenced in which Tony delightfully speaks to him about, while Tony is taught how to better read and write with the assistance of Don. The film is charming and it is solely because of these two leads, they make what is a standard and predictable story feel a little more alive. If it were any other actors playing these characters, I really don’t think this movie would work as well as it does. Their friendship is believable and flows relatively naturally, even with the predictable nature of the story arc. Viggo Mortensen is a likable buffoon at times, but also pretty cool and intimidating when he needs to be. Mahershala Ali makes this pompous and entitled man interesting and a solid counterbalance to his co-lead, giving another good performance in what is seeming to be a great growing career.
Alright, So What’s Wrong With It?
Nothing really, in all honestly. There is no glaring issues that I have with the film in terms of quality. The editing is fine, the direction is fine, the script is fine, the cinematography is fine. For the most part, it’s fine; aside from the acting, which is great. My only issue is that this isn’t as grand as what the majority of viewers seem to conclude Green Book as. The themes of racism are played safe, to a fault. There’s nothing all that interesting or provocative being said with the material, the moral is simply ‘racism is bad’. Which, yes, of course it’s bad. But there isn’t much done with that theme here, it is more or less used to supply a bit of a fluff piece to anyone that doesn’t want to watch anything too heavy but would still like to watch something about racism and how friendship is stronger than segregation. That’s nice in all, but it’s also an exceedingly watered down version of what actual oppression was like back then for the African-American community. At no point did I fear for the lives of either one of my lead characters, even though there were scenes where I believe that was the intent. It was always apparent to me that these two were going to make it through every rough situation safe and sound. The story is too predictable in that regard. There’s no ambition in its writing or filmmaking, it is the basic bones of the story that love conquers over racism. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that and I still really enjoyed this movie. But to be considered as anything truly great, a film has to work harder than this and I saw others from 2018 that dealt in race relations in much more interesting and creative ways than with Green Book. Blindspotting takes similar aspects that can be found in Green Book, but with a much more in-depth analysis on racism while also providing two astonishingly great lead performances that are equal parts funny and serious. I believe Blindspotting deserves more recognition than what Green Book has gotten, but alas the crowd pleaser is what snags the nominations it seems. Oh well. Also, for a film called Green Book, it actually really has very little to do with the Green Book. It is brought up all of once or twice and then it really has nothing to do with anything really going on with our characters. I suppose it made for a good title though.
I Know I Bashed On It, But I Still Recommend the Movie!
I really do recommend checking out Green Book, it is a very funny and charming little film that I think supplies good entertainment to be had for anyone interested. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the film, nor is it by any means bad. I know that it sounds as though I didn’t actually like the movie, but I did. I just don’t think it earned quite the praise in awards and nominations when compared to others that deserve it way more, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean that I write this film off as something to skip though, on the contrary, I think that this is a good way to pass the time and have some fun. Just don’t expect greatness, enjoy the movie for what it is. A cute story about friendship that blossoms in the most unlikely of places. Take that for what it’s worth!
© 2019 John Plocar
John Plocar (author) from Weatherford on January 13, 2019:
Thank you, Camille, for your kind words and insight. I truly do appreciate that you enjoy my reviews! It means a lot to me.And I 100% agree with you on Tree of Life... there is no need to see that film or most films by Terrence Malick... But film is very subjective, like any other art form, so what we find to be just fine or even bad, others may see as masterpieces. It's odd how that happens, but it happens.
Mortensen is dreamy.
With Blindspotting, I thought that it made more of an effort to look deeper than what Green Book did. I understand that I'm just a white kid from Chicago that's been sheltered most of his life lol but I feel like Blindspotting still at least tried harder to give more insight. Plus, I just found Blindspotting to be a funnier film as well. Since Green Book took the Golden Globe as Best Comedy Film, I find this to be somewhat false when there seems to be a stronger movie with similar themes. Hell, I thought that there were simply funnier movies in general that deserved the win over Green Book. But I digress.
Anyways, thank you so much again for your comment! I hope that you keep enjoying film as I do! Take care. =)
Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on January 13, 2019:
Thanks, John. I always enjoy your reviews and take your recommendations seriously. I, too, tend to stray from what critics think are groundbreaking or important films (see: Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"...actually, please don't).
Per your recommendation, I probably will see this movie, but mostly because of my childhood crush on Mortensen.
Lastly, while I do agree "Blindspotting" deserves more recognition, I didn't find it particularly deep or eyeopening. But take that, too, with a grain of salt as our perspectives (me, a black woman born and half-raised in Oakland; you, well, you) differ. What is already a deeply familiar story for me probably isn't for many - or most - others. I can appreciate that people outside of my world/perspective may get something from that film even if I did not.