Oscar Nominations 2019 – FILM REVIEW: Green Book (2018)

Dir: Peter Farrelly

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing.

Score: ★★★★☆

Much like Adam McKay’s transition from the likes of Anchorman & Talladega Nights comedy fodder to relatively serious works like The Big Short and another of this year’s nominees Vice, Green Book director Peter Farelly has graduated from his notorious run of creating (with his brother) a string of 90s and early 2000s, juvenile but commercially successful comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber to directing a ‘heart warming’ bonafide Oscar contender at this year’s ceremony. But has he raised his game enough to walk away with a statuette?

The two leads Mahershala Ali & Viggo Mortensen.

Green Book is the story of 1960’s New York city club bouncer “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen of the Lord Of The Rings fame), who accepts a job driving around virtuoso musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali of Moonlight fame) on a concert tour around the deeply racist southern states of the day using the “Green Book” which is a guide to all the black friendly hotels, motels, and restaurants in what is otherwise hostile territory. The movie initially positions Tony as a man who, upon seeing his wife offer two black repair men in his apartment drinks, takes the time to throw the two undamaged glasses into the trash as he clearly considers them now irrevocably tainted. The film shows us that Tony is falling into line with what his wider community thinks of black men as the scene depicts a gang of family members sat watching the TV in Tony’s apartment, ostensibly to keep an eye on the two workmen who would otherwise be alone in the apartment with Tony’s wife. The tale is of course one that on the surface shows the journey of Tony, an Italian American who usually mixes with your average Soprano’s type (the real Tony later actually had a role in The Sopranos), slowly having his racial prejudices ebbed away by his time spent with black classical musician Don Shirley and the scenarios the trip throws up. But it’s not a one way street, Don Shirley as an exceptionally well educated and intelligent man looks down on Tony who spends his nights punching the faces of evicted patrons into the sidewalk outside the Copacabana nightclub. This story also charts the ways in which his somewhat snobby life view is softened by his time with the more down to earth Tony. To that end the film has some interesting dynamics, Tony a working class Italian is looked down on by the affluent southern society types who now “welcome” Don Shirley to play in their concert halls and homes, just as Don Shirley looks down on Tony for his working class Italian American disposition. Whilst Tony, and the vast majority of the white people in the southern states (and indeed those who have invited him to perform) mostly look down on Shirley simply because he is black, the film also makes it clear that the black community itself shun him for a number of reasons, most obviously because he is well educated, prim and proper, and possibly a bit snooty. The movie holds a few dodgy efforts at trying to invert a few black/white relationship tropes (re: chicken and Little Richard) and the film also take some liberties with the truth – could a white man drive a black man around in the deep south in the early 60s unimpeded? Perhaps not, but overall for a relatively fluffy movie it does tackle the subject fairly straight on and Shirley is in no way left unscathed by the widespread racism present in the south, both from your average hick, and from the supposedly enlightened classes he performs for, who on the surface seem to hold him in high esteem.

Tony Lip writes while Don Shirley dictates.

The family of Don Shirley has asserted that the friendship between him and Tony wasn’t quite as close as the film depicts, and there has also been much talk about offscreen issues like Tony Lip’s son (who co-wrote the film) having re-tweeted something seemingly accusing a group of New Jersey muslims of celebrating in the aftermath of 9/11 (a Tweet President Trump had circulated). Another accusation that made industry waves is that the director, in bad taste jokey way (bad taste jokes from the creator of Dumb & Dumber? Who’d have thunk it?!) flashed his genitals on several occasions 20 years ago. In regards to this practical joke that now seems very of it’s time, Cameron Diaz is quoted as saying “When a director shows you his penis the first time you meet him, you’ve got to recognize the creative genius.” Apparently this stunt was a factor in convincing her to sign on for the 1998 gross out comedy There’s Something About Mary. It’s lucky for Farelly that Diaz was seemingly so in tune with such ‘frat boy’ humour, but for his part, he now says, “I was an idiot. I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now. I’m deeply sorry.” It should be noted that Farelly knew the wheels were starting to fall off this type of humour in the early 2000s when there was an unsettled audience reaction to the misguided lessons supposedly contained in the Farelly brothers 2001 Jack Black vehicle Shallow Hal, followed by some notable negative media reaction to the brothers casting Matt Damon and & Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins for comedic effect in the lamentable 2003 comedy Stuck On You. These days all of this is par for the course even outside of lowbrow controversy riddled comedies, with each new prestigious major studio award favourite experiencing a fresh outrage of some type upon it’s release. However, in Hollywood money talks, and this year some have noted an extra element present in the noise. In the case of Green Book, the unearthing of these specific stories is being seen by many as a deliberate attempt by competing major studios (who also have award nominated films) to “weaponize” these incidents and torpedo the film’s awards chances and hopefully catapult their own productions up to the awards podium. Hollywood insiders are considering them smear campaigns, rather than being part of some legitimate widespread wave of moral outrage. Specifically in the case of Green Book it seems to be because it’s actually quite a good film, schmaltzy, but quite good. In fact ‘Schmaltzy but quite good’ might as well be the specific instruction given out to film producers if they are looking to win at The Oscars.

Tony Lip leaves the neighbourhood.

It’s not the most ground-breaking or dynamic film ever made but it’s a handsomely shot film with a wonderful considered colour palette. It’s often cannily written, for a premise that is reasonably thin (white guy drives black guy round the racist south) the script actually allows the characters actions to inform you about who they are by placing small signals in their physical choices that let you know about their inner attitudes towards life. Where it isn’t so well written both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali rise above the material. It’s fair to say that without the excellent performances of these two the movie would not be nearly as successful as it is. Mortensen in particular has charm to burn as he makes a role that could very easily just be a caricature of ‘wise guy’ actually work on unexpected levels. Not taking anything away from Ali however, he excels just as much and the film rises generally on the strength of the performance of the two leads. Some might attack it for having a hint of white saviour about it but there is no denying that if you are a gentile classical musician being beat up by rednecks in the deep south, the mob doorman you have in your employ is someone you have brought along for his specific skill set. Unlike last year’s cosy ‘issue’ picture, the supposedly pro-feminist, anti-racist Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, which featured horrifying female “bimbo” stereotypes, and several astoundingly insulting and one dimensional black characters, Green Book’s Don Shirley is a wonderfully multifaceted character. He isn’t a perfect magical black man as some insulting films like to create, he is a fully fledged nuanced human being with negative and positive aspects to his personality just the same as his white counterpart Tony. Being shunned by both the white and black communities and with no family in the picture it means Shirley is portrayed as something of an island. Understandably uptight, private and guarded, given who he is, he faces prejudice on all sides. While Tony on the other hand is part of close knit large outgoing Italian American family and community that is gregarious and a little rough around the edges.

Don Shirley on his home throne.

This isn’t really a film that puts racism to rights, in fact it isn’t really a film about racism at all, it’s really the story of two individual human beings overcoming the gulf that lies between them against a backdrop of 60s racism. Despite being from the same city, the two men are very different for a whole host of reasons, race being only one of them. The film takes a few corny, well worn or slightly ill conceived missteps around the race issue, it is after all very much a mainstream Hollywood film, but overall it is touching tale of two men coming to accept and understand each other as individuals. At a time when identity politics are so very common place, the simple act of understanding just one other single human being for all their complexities and individual foibles is a valuable one. In real life perhaps their journey was not as cinematic as the film shows, but then unlike Bohemian Rhapsody this isn’t a biopic with details mercilessly chopped and changed to suit the producer’s whim. It’s a “based on a true story” tale which shows enough quality and care to earn it’s right to use artistic licence to tell a little known story that prioritises the idea that two individuals (not entire races or societies) can indeed find common ground and bridge their personal divide. Legendary Jazz musician, producer and civil rights campaigner Quincy Jones said after a special screening of the movie “I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the ’50s, and he was without question one of America’s greatest pianists … as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn … so it is wonderful that his story is finally being told and celebrated. Mahershala, you did an absolutely fantastic job playing him, and I think yours and Viggo’s performances will go down as one of the great friendships captured on film.” For all it’s controversies and interpretations this assessment from Jones is probably as informed an opinion as there can be about the film. However I think the legendary NBA Hall Of Fame Basketball player (and a personal childhood hero of mine) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said it best when he wrote in the Hollywood Reporter  “[while such discrepancies about the historicity of some of the depicted events] may irk family members, they don’t really matter because those plot details are about getting to a greater truth than whatever the mundane facts are.” In this particular case, I’m inclined to agree with Kareem on that one.

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