Inspired by a true friendship
Arguably the most controversial sub-sect of oscar baiting movies, the “white person solves racism” film has shown no sign of losing any impact with awards voters over the years. Demographics and politics may have drastically altered since the days of Driving Miss Daisy‘s much maligned best picture triumph, but in this decade alone Oscar has awarded both The Blind Side and The Help – and with best picture nominations in addition to their acting wins. The demography of the Academy may have changed in the past few years, allowing more insightful films on the topic of race from non-white filmmakers to be championed. But Green Book has still managed to swoop into this awards season like a relic from a past, where discourse on race issues (from a less diverse array of critics) could be described, on their best possible day, as “somewhat simplified”.
After Jordan Peele’s multitude of nominations for his satirical horror Get Out last year, Green Book naturally seems like a notable regression in how mainstream cinema discusses important issues in such a turbulent era. It’s a movie that relies on audience awareness of outdated stereotypes, so they can be subverted in the most obvious way, as the white protagonist learns not to be so closed minded when it comes to speaking to people of different races and cultures to his own. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this message, of course, but director Peter Farrelly (making his solo directorial debut after a family tragedy stopped his brother, Bobby, joining him behind the camera) has a background in comedy that stops him dealing with the subject matter in the serious manner it deserves. It’s billed as his first dramatic effort, but the drama is obfuscated by a culture clash comedy that reimagines Planes, Trains and Automobiles as a period treatise on race relations.
But the most shocking thing about Green Book? Despite its simplified thematic nature, and the fact that it’s anchored by an absurdly terrible performance from Viggo Mortensen, it somehow becomes entertaining in spite of itself. The fact it’s central to the awards race outside of Mahershala Ali’s supporting performance is genuinely inexplicable – but after initial eye rolls at its reliance on a tried and tested formula, Farrelly’s film becomes strangely endearing. A throwback to a specific kind of film that we don’t need to see a resurgence of in the current moment, but one that eventually can be enjoyed despite this.
Mortensen plays Tony Lip, a security goon who is out of work after starting a fight that saw the nightclub he worked at close its doors. After briefly considering getting rich via a hot dog eating contest, he settles on applying to be a chauffeur to musician Don Shirley (Ali), a mismatched artist who lives above Carnegie Hall. He gets the job, and takes him on a whistle stop tour of the south. Tony’s previous racist inclinations are challenged, and Don learns to be less uptight, and everything unfolds with very little in the way of surprise.
The most confounding aspect of the film’s existence is the casting of Viggo Mortensen in the lead role. The actor rarely strays from arthouse fare, evidenced by the fact his most mainstream efforts since The Lord of the Rings trilogy were collaborations with David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method), and an unexpected Sundance hit turned awards nominee in Captain Fantastic. The entire project seems at odds with the type of material we’d usually expect him to be preferential to; he’s known for playing brooding figures, so casting him as an outsized (in more ways than one) Italian American stereotype is one of the most bizarre cases of casting against type this year.
My personal theory is that Mortensen signed on to do the film directly before eating lunch, and that his hunger led him to agree to star in a film where his character spends approximately 90% of all scenes cramming his face with something grotesquely unhealthy. Most method actors put on weight before doing a role like this – in this, you can actually see Mortensen grow before your very eyes as he devours a different meal every two minutes. This isn’t an exaggeration; there are so few sequences without him eating, his Oscar clip is likely to be a toss up between him eating KFC (“in Kentucky!”) while driving, or folding an entire pizza and eating it in one go in his hotel bedroom. There’s a genuinely inspiring commitment to putting on the weight before our very eyes for such an embarrassingly outdated role, that it becomes a genuinely entertaining bad performance. Not since Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia has such a staggeringly awful turn become so transfixing.
There are numerous controversies surrounding Green Book‘s approach to the relationship between Tony and Don, with the musician’s family calling out the screenwriters (one of whom is Nick Vallelonga, the son of Mortensen’s real life counterpart) for sugarcoating a far less idealised dynamic between the hired chauffeur and the pianist. There’s also the issue of downplaying the harsh realities of the Jim Crow south for easy multiplex consumption – in the humble Americana of Farrelly’s film, the blunt impact of draconian laws upon African American people can be solved with a little help from a white ally. As Tony learns the error of his ways and learns to see beyond skin colour, there is justifiable cause for concern with regards to the “white saviour” trope, accelerated by the fact that he is the hallmark of mediocrity when placed next to his talented companion.
But there are also surprisingly refreshing moments you’d never expect in a film of this type, let alone one coming from the co-director of films such as Shallow Hal and Hall Pass. Don’s sexuality is treated with a comparative shrug by Tony, in sharp contrast to how he initially gets treated differently due to his race – and Mahershala Ali doesn’t lean in on any stereotypical traits to highlight this. Ali is, undeniably, the film’s saving grace even when it touches on ill thought through sequences, such as an extended discussion about (prepare yourselves) whether all African Americans have a fondness for fried chicken. The actor even sells a genuine moment of pathos amidst the cheese and the schmaltz, breaking down over the conflict between his personality and racial identity in a manner far more suited to one of the year’s more articulate dissections of race relations in a period America eerily similar to the modern day: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
Films such as BlacKkKlansman, Widows, or If Beale Street Could Talk should be your first point of call before settling down to watch this, but despite the sloppy simplifications of its themes in comparison, there’s still more to enjoy here than I cynically expected.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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