Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Movies intended to be heartwarming, crowd-pleasing, Christmas family entertainment need to have positive messages and happy endings where everybody learns to be a better person just in time for Christmas dinner. Green Book, about a white bouncer driving a black musician to gigs in the Deep South in 1962, tries to apply those things to a story about ignorance and racism. It is a pleasant movie with likable performances, but its emotions come off as so simplistic and insincere that it did not work on me. It could be easy to fall for if you do not look too deep (people definitely seemed to enjoy it at the packed screening I attended). On closer examination, it has nothing of note to say about its topic.
Tony Vallelonga works security at the Copacabana nightclub. When it shuts down for a couple of months for renovations, he needs a temporary job so he can continue to provide for his wife and kids. He ends up getting hired to drive brilliant pianist Dr. Don Shirley to various concerts during a two month tour in the south. Of course they are an odd couple who start to respect each other when their beliefs are tested during the long road trip.
Green Book (123 minutes, minus the end credits) succeeds to the extent it does thanks to the lead performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. They are the movie. While it sometimes feels phony, they never do. Mortensen commits to a thick accent and generally seems to be having fun playing the outgoing, happy, Tony. There are moments where he is condescended to, when his ignorance and inability to articulate are made to be the butt of a joke. But Mortensen does not let on that he is aware of it. He is pretty enjoyable to watch.
Ali has the harder role. He is both a victim of racial discrimination who refuses to allow it to define his life and a mentor who helps this uncultured white man find his way. As a black musician playing to wealthy white audiences in venues he would normally be banned from, he needs to show he hears the racism and chooses to let it go. Why would this intelligent, dignified, man willingly put himself through this abuse? That aspect is interesting (although, when the answer comes, it is truly underwhelming). Ali plays his part with a depth that is completely squandered by a screenplay that does not actually want to use it.
This is a story that uses racism as the backdrop to an unconvincingly sentimental friendship. It has no interest in exploring the impact it had on these two men, but it wants to pretend it does. That is worse than ignoring it because it gives the impression that it is easy to overcome that type of prejudice. It is based on a true story, co-written by Tony’s son, Nick. Yet it has little relation to the real world. This is a sappy, feel-good, product that earns none of its emotions.
That said, the final act is kind of effective. That is because the actors do such an admirable job of selling their individual arcs. Mortensen and Ali are both very talented performers. While they were unable to make me care about Green Book, they did provide some small moments of entertainment. Their conversations together are by far the best thing in the movie, despite their relationship feeling contrived.
If you can meet it at its level, you are likely to leave the theater with a smile on your face. I could not. Its superficiality bothered me. With so many quality films filling up multiplexes right now, it is hard for me to recommend this one, even with the positive audience word of mouth. If you want a light, heartwarming story, go see Instant Family instead.
2½ out of 5
Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga
Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley
Linda Cardellini as Dolores
Dimiter D. Marinov as Oleg
Mike Hatton as George
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Screenplay by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly