About an hour into “Green Book,” I found myself struggling with Stockholm syndrome. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are incredible actors — and they could make fine wine out of Pruno — so once they both began to loosen up and like each other, I started to like them, and to believe in their on-screen friendship. However, there are movies that appeal to one’s better angels, and then there’s ones that pander, and I got sucked in because of the latter — not because of some inherent maliciousness in the pandering, but because of my own thoughtlessness, laziness and socialization.
I don’t think anyone who made “Green Book” consciously set out on a mission to make white people feel smug and self-congratulatory about race relations, but that’s the end result of watching it. There are plenty of people who are not hateful, racist or willfully ignorant who will enjoy “Green Book”; I am very sure that I know and love a whole lot of people who will enjoy “Green Book." (I’d wager that the white people who go see “Green Book” think of themselves as socially open-minded people who like seeing other white folks overcome their prejudices and become friends. Which is, in fact, good!)
But this movie was written, directed and produced by white people for white people, almost none of whom will have never found themselves at risk of a hate crime, much less a hate crime neatly solved by a tough white guy who, in one scene, eats an entire pizza folded up like a slice while relaxing in his undershirt and shorts.
In Peter Farrelly’s dramedy, based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley’s friendship with Tony Lip, Ali stars as Shirley, the legendary composer and pianist who embarked on a two-month tour of the South with his musical trio in the 1960s. Lip, played by Mortensen, is a working-class guy from the Bronx who’s hired by Shirley to drive him from New York City and back by Christmas.
Lip isn’t sure why Shirley picked him from all the other candidates, and he’s not thrilled at the prospect of working for a black man — even an extraordinarily talented, educated and well-off black man — but he’s also not too racist to take the musician’s money.
It’s immediately obvious to the audience why Lip was hired: The former Frank Vallelonga (that’s right, the actor who played Carmine Lupertazzi on “The Sopranos”) is great at smooth-talking dangerous people — like the mobsters who run the Copacabana — but he’s even better at fighting (and eating).
And thus, every time Shirley finds himself in dangerous and violent situations, Lip steps in to save him — and not just from the racist townies or the racist policemen or the racist rich people, but from himself, because he refuses to bow to the racist conventions of the times. His refusal to accept those conventions, and not the racists upholding them, is what endangers Shirley over and over again (and strikes awe in the hearts of the white people around him), and is the reason Lip’s services are perceived as needed.
Here it’s worth noting that the script was co-written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, who is also listed as a producer on the film, and I feel extremely bad for talking smack about what is obviously meant to be a tribute to his father and the power of interracial friendships as they were seen in the 60s. But movies that frame race in this way do a disservice to audiences, Vallelonga and Shirley.
The title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a historical text I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard about before. It was written by a postal employee from Harlem named Victor H. Green, who wanted to provide a guide to safe havens for people of color during road trips, from bathrooms and gas stations to bathrooms, restaurants and hotels. As per the Washington Post, one ad in the book read, “If you’re traveling you don’t have to worry about accommodations — whether this place will take you in or that place will sell you food. That is if you’re white and gentile. If you’re not, you have to travel a careful route like seeking oases in a desert.”
The ugly reality of why the “Green Book” exists becomes all too clear to Lip the farther south they get, because he’s apparently only used to the slightly-less-overt racism he sees in New York. After all, he and the men in his family speak among themselves in Italian when they’re being racist.
There’s almost a nugget of something interesting at the portrayal of the intersection of the Italian-American identity, the working class and education that could be vital, but it’s handled with about as much subtlety as you’d expect from the director of “There’s Something About Mary.” (It feels like a cheap shot to mention Farrelly’s other movies, but it’s not.) Unfortunately for Mortensen, his character isn’t really salvageable, and Lip as written leaves a Fonzie-like aftertaste in your mouth if, in between “AYYYY”s, Fonzie had also said things about how, as an Italian-American, many people saw him as socially/racially “worse” than a black man like Shirley. (Lip uses slightly different language that I won’t repeat here, but maybe I’m just more uptight than Mortensen.)
Shirley, for his part, keeps trying to teach Lip how to speak more eloquently, to stop stealing and to use his words instead of his fists, but the only thing Lip seems to learn is how to sweet-talk his wife (played by the woefully underused Linda Cardellini, who is one of the very few women in the movie to have more than a handful of lines) and to stop punching people without first trying to reason with them. Meanwhile, he teaches Shirley all about self-acceptance, the joys of eating fried chicken and Motown.
Once I shook off the glossy trappings of “Green Book” and its on-the-nose ending, I couldn’t still enjoy the friendship brought to life on the screen. It can sometimes be enough to just enjoy a movie and go on about your day, but if “Green Book” wants to be taken seriously as a film against racism — which it has positioned itself to be — it has to confront the lived reality of racism and the people it most directly affected (and still affects) in a deeply honest way. And when those people aren’t the ones who will leave “Green Book” feeling good, then it clearly hasn’t accomplished its objectives.