Peter Farrelly, whose filmography consists of mostly comedies such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, takes on a different kind of film with Green Book. Co-written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie, the film downplays Mahershala Ali’s character and backstory, focuses too much on Tony’s perspective, and is far too familiar of a story in all the negative ways.
It’s 1962 and Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), is out of a job after the club he works at shuts down for a couple of months. He’s called to interview with famed pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who wants to tour venues in the south and is looking for a driver. Tony is an Italian-American bouncer who struggles financially, loves his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) dearly, and doesn’t exactly blend in well with the elite. Don, on the other hand, is a black man with tremendous talent, comes from a highly educated background, has an estranged brother, and struggles with his identity in many ways. While on the road trip to the concert venues, the pair must come to terms with their differences and end up becoming unlikely friends, all while navigating the confines of a racist country.
Green Book is simply underwhelming and very over-hyped. It’s based on a true story, but given its title–named after a guide published to keep black people safe while traveling in the south–and subject matter, it would have been far more appropriate, compelling, and interesting had the film been written to reflect more of Don Shirley’s point of view. The film tries to give us both perspectives, but it’s obviously skewed towards Tony’s character–the white man who has the most to learn from this experience. There are a few moments where Don’s fellow musicians are the ones feeding Tony information about Don’s past instead of allowing Don himself to open up. At one point, it’s mentioned that the reason Don is doing concerts in the south, despite the obvious racism he faces there, is because he wants to and not because the record company made him. Don, however, never so much as talks about his reasons for wanting to do it beyond his outburst regarding his identity and not feeling like he belongs in any circle.
Don also reflects on how he no longer speaks to his brother, but we’re not shown any moments reflecting on his backstory and history. It’s Tony’s family we get to know, Tony’s life, and Tony’s full journey we see. Meanwhile, Don is very much someone who’s dropped into the middle of Tony’s life, even though he clearly has his own baggage beyond the daily racism he faces just for being a black man. He’s caught in his own battle of self-identity, has his blackness questioned by a white man, and, unlike Tony, only has one major blow-up after a lot of buildup. No matter how much Tony complains about not being treated the same way as white guys who are better off financially, he is still afforded privileges that Don isn’t and the film isn’t self-aware enough to understand this. Green Book shows us what it’s like for Don in the south, but the film downplays the severity of racism at every turn, as well as Don’s place as a black man in a unique position playing for wealthy white people. The film is more concerned with being a digestible situational comedy about two guys on a road trip.
Green Book never rises above its mediocrity and its downfall is in its biased perspective and lack of focus on Don. Are there are a couple of nice moments between Don and Tony? Yes, and Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen really sell their relationship, but Ali especially deserves much better. The film treats racism as a mere inconvenience, a speed bump they have to get through in order to make it through the south and back to New York. The film’s events are palatable enough for white audiences even though it takes place during an era when Jim Crow laws are still in effect. With films like The Hate U Give and Sorry to Bother You both out this year, Green Book takes a backwards step in elevating the conversation.
The movie also glosses right over the fact that Don is gay, only briefly showing us after being caught with another man at the YMCA. It’s an embarrassing moment for Don given the way he acts afterwards, but the film makes it seem like him wanting to be with men is the embarrassment and not the fact that he’s handcuffed while naked by two cops and then later helped out of the situation by Tony.
Green Book might have been sold as a film about friendship, but its attempts to convey both sides isn’t revolutionary and it plays more like a film about how white people can overcome their own racism and see black people as human if they only just befriend them. All of the film’s events are seen through a white lens and it’s Tony’s perspective that is obviously the one meant to be focused on. Don should have had more room to develop as a person and not just as a vehicle for Tony’s growth. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are fantastic, but even their talent can’t save this movie from being overly simplistic and fundamentally flawed in so many ways.