Representing EoM as press, contributor Hunter Heilman attended the first annual Film Fest 919 in Raleigh, NC, to review several films that are either in limited release now or are yet to be released. Or, in the case of Green Book, the in limited release.
Civil Rights dramas are perhaps some of the most familiar films that Hollywood has to offer at this point. It gives white people a chance to relinquish the guilt of any of their existing prejudices in a “well, at least it isn’t as bad as it used to be” sense. For a while, these films were the only real films that serious black actors could find work in. While there are many wonderful films surrounding the Civil Rights era of American history, there have been so many that a good deal of them have faded into obscurity for good reason. Not only are many of these films blandly written and quickly made, a good number of them play into the negative stereotypes of black people that they seek to go against. For every Selma, there is a The Help; for every Hidden Figures, there is a Driving Miss Daisy (sorry about it); for every Malcolm X, there is a Mississippi Burning. With the onset of more black and female directors getting their chances at tackling these stories and doing so in more empathetic ways than white male filmmakers have, we’re moving on to more authentic and less “white redemption”-based stories. Green Book seeks to flip the notion of stereotypes on its head, flipping the script of what was expected of the races in the 1960s. And while it’s competently made, and wonderfully acted, Green Book still plays it remarkably close to the chest, without any real authentic message to make it memorable in any such way.
Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is an Italian-American bouncer living in Queens during the early 1960s who finds himself out of work when his employer goes out of business. Refusing jobs from the Italian mob in the area, Tony takes the only job he can get, chauffeuring world-renowned black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through his tour of the American Deep South. Vallelonga, an unrefined working-class father, finds himself at odds with the ostentatious, reserved, and high-class Shirley, as their personalities clash through the trip. Vallelonga and Shirley begin to find common ground through their differences, the struggles of Shirley’s existence as a black (and gay) man in the Deep South, and their shortcomings in their own lives at home.
I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds like the most cliché Thanksgiving-season movie ever,” and to that I say…yeah, kind of. There are a few distinct elements about Green Book that make it one cut above the cliché group of civil rights dramas that have proceeded it (emphasis on ONE cut), and that’s in its performances. Mortensen and Ali give two killer performances as the co-leads. Mortensen, known mostly for his dignified and badass take as Aragorn in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, makes for a very different turn here as Vallelonga. Mortensen’s Frank might be seen as an overly stereotypical take on a middle-aged Italian-American man, and it wouldn’t be completely wrong, but knowing that the character is actually based off of writer Nick Vallelonga’s father, a stereotype that is accurate to a real-life person cannot be completely faulted. Beyond Mortensen, it’s Ali who really drives the film to any sort of memorability. Coming off of his Academy Award-winning performance as Juan in Moonlight, Ali gives another quietly powerful performance as the tormented Shirley, a man finding himself in as many boxes of discriminated peoples of the time period as he could. His closed-off nature lends well to Ali’s sensibility as an actor whose strength lies in subtlety. While the subtext is absolutely lacking subtlety, Ali brings an air of legitimate class that much of the rest of the film lacks.
This is a relatively restrained piece for director Peter Farrelly, who made his name on crude comedies like Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary with his brother, Bobby. The thing is, without the comedy, there isn’t anything particularly special about the way that Farrelly frames the film or executes the screenplay. It’s just a standard, straightforward drama with no real major style beyond the feeling of “Peter Farrelly directed this?” during the end credits.
And that’s the thing about Green Book, it’s just bland. Competently bland. Green Book has more nuanced messages about the nature of masculinity than that of race relations in America, and yet neither seem to hit any major points beyond the expected guise of white guilt. Green Book really isn’t a bad film, as it’s a major crowd pleaser (and it somehow took the “People’s Choice” award at the Toronto International Film Festival over something like Roma), but beyond its wonderful performances, Green Book offers nothing more than something mundanely predictable.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.