If the screenplay for “Green Book” had been written in 1987 and was intended to star Robert De Niro and Sidney Poitier, I would believe it.
The movie would have fit in neatly with “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Mississippi Burning” and a bunch of other well-meaning, simplistic dramas that present racism as a thing of the past in America, something that the country had grappled with and decisively overcame.
In 2018, we know that’s not true. And, if we’re perfectly honest with ourselves, we knew it in 1987. But the fiction is a seductive one, one that lets white audiences off the hook for not facing up to the more insidious forms of prejudice in society today. “Green Book” is a feel-good movie, with strong performances and a generous spirit. But maybe this isn’t the time to feel good.
Inspired by a true story, “Green Book” is set in 1962, and follows Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian nightclub bouncer born and bred in the Bronx. Tony is a two-fisted slab of beef, devoted to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and kids, and he’s also an unabashed racist. When his wife offers two African-American handymen a drink of water, he discreetly throws the glasses in the trash after they leave.
With the club closed for repairs, Tony needs cash, and takes a job driving a reserved African-American pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), around the country on a two-month concert tour. The tour includes stops in the Deep South, at all-white venues, and Tony is given a copy of the “Green Book,” a guide to trouble spots for black travelers to avoid (“Vacation without Aggravation!” the cover cheerfully advertises).
Shirley turns out to be kind of an arrogant prig, as uncomfortable in his own skin as Tony is comfortable in his, and the pair clash on the road during the first half of the movie. Both Ali and Mortensen are good individually, but they’re so deep into the archetypes they’re playing that they don’t have much chemistry with each other.
They travel into the Deep South, and Dr. Shirley is forced to sleep in fleabag “Coloreds Only” motels and endure the slights of his rich white benefactors. Dr. Shirley deliberately books gigs in unfriendly white communities, perhaps hoping to challenge prejudices about African-Americans simply by his gift for music. He doesn’t seem to have much success, and seeing the prejudice up close awakens the humanity in Tony. An unlikely friendship forms between the two men.
Well, unlikely but for the fact that we see it coming from the first 10 minutes of the movie. But the bond between Tony and Dr. Shirley is genuinely affecting, even if the script (co-written by Peter Farrelly, who also directed) can be as ham-handed as Tony himself. Dr. Shirley feels isolated from both black and white America, and Tony’s attempts to introduce him to the culture of “his people,” including Little Richard and fried chicken, feels tonally off.
I found myself both touched by their friendship (Farrelly goes right for the heartstrings in a finale set at Christmas Eve) and put off by the movie’s problematic view of racism, which is presented as a few white villains for Dr. Shirley to either nobly suffer or for Tony to punch out.
Rather than making sweeping, simplistic generalizations about America, “Green Book” would have been stronger if it had stayed in the car and focused on the two men. They are good company, even if their destination doesn’t ring true.