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“Green Book”: Side by Side on My Piano Keyboard

Green Book!

Stars of the new Norman Lear sitcom Aragorn and Cottonmouth.

As a longtime fan of road trips, I spent more of Green Book‘s running time looking forward to Our Heroes seeing the sights, maybe filming on location and giving us new travel ideas. And if they go back in time and cure racism while they’re at it, so much the better.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Imagine Driving Miss Daisy but race-swapped and they’re both dudes, it gets nominated for Best Picture anyway, and lots of film fans complain about its approach to race relations like it’s the second coming of Crash. I think I just made everything worse, so let me start over.

Yet another Oscar nominee from the Department of Loosely Inspired By A True Story Or At Least Containing Some Of The Same Proper Nouns As The True Story, Green Book follows the 1962 adventure of Viggo Mortensen as Frank Vallelonga, a.k.a. “Tony Lip”, a Bronx club bouncer who picks up temp work as a driver for Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, Moonlight) as renowned pianist Dr. Don Shirley. Tony Lip’s special passenger is going on a U.S. tour with his classical/jazz trio and he needs a driver, bodyguard, caretaker, sidekick, and Assistant Manager in Charge of Keeping It Real. In exchange, Tony Lip gets to learn manners, poise, and how not to be such a goombah all the time.

The circuit starts in Pittsburgh and works way down into the Deep South, where certain cultural circles are far more welcoming to Dr. Shirley’s music than to his skin. Can this mismatched buddy-trip couple survive the experience without getting lynched or strangling each other? How many different lessons can they teach other on the road? And will they realize the real Academy Awards were the friends they made along the way?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Scooby-Doo‘s Linda Cardellini, previously Hawkeye’s Concerned Wife in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is Viggo’s Concerned Wife. Dr. Shirley’s trio includes Iqbal Theba, Abed’s dad from Community. Minor irritations include PJ Byrne (that jerk Principal Lowry from Black Lightning) as a record company exec who gives Our Heroes a copy of the real-life “Green Book” in the title; and Brian Stepanek (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody) as a maitre d’ who makes their grand finale in Birmingham, AL, appropriately uncomfortable.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? At times director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) seems more interested in contrasting class differences than racial tensions. An early scene establishes Tony Lip isn’t the most enlightened guy around and has backward notions about how germs work, but his bias is left behind pretty quickly in favor of Odd Couple squabbling about cleanliness, fashion, classy music, and shoplifting. Dr. Shirley is Felix Unger; Tony Lip is Oscar Madison. The only real difference is Oscar never had to worry about regressive jerks trying to murder Felix.

Kids in the audience may want to check out their local library or Wikipedia to learn more about the very real “Green Book”, which appears in a few scenes and technically keeps Dr. Shirley alive, but they don’t talk it up as much as you’d expect for an object with an entire movie named after it.

Other morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Racism = bad
  • Conducting oneself like Frasier or Niles Crane = good
  • Stereotyping is annoying but apparently not always bad, especially when it involves either KFC or Italian-Americans in the Bronx
  • Being an outsider sucks; being a buddy is better
  • Classical music is good, but popular music has its uses, techniques, and appeal
  • Count yourself lucky if “black” is your only minority category
  • Even the stuffiest snobs can sometimes exceed their liquor limits and do stupid things

Nitpicking? Compared to fellow nominee BlacKkKlansman, Green Book is anti-racism lesson-learning comfort food. I don’t think that has to be a bad thing — honestly, if someone who needs basic race-relations tips gleans any insight from this, then more power to it. But it’s a gentle throwback compared to today’s incendiary polemics, one that maybe drives a bit too smoothly toward its inevitable happy ending. It’s particularly quaint if you spend far too many hours a day on the battlefields of Twitter.

Of the two gentlemen, Mortensen is the far more distracting. It seems unfair for Viggo to take a plum part away from any number of Sopranos costars and Scorsese mob-movie henchmen still working and looking for parts in a Hollywood scene that cranks out far fewer Mafia films these days, which will likely dwindle away to nothing after the vitriolic reactions to Gotti. It was all I could do not to guffaw when one scene has him shouting, “Hey, I’m WORKIN’ here!” in his best Ratso Rizzo voice. And by “best” I don’t mean much.

For those who think “ebony and ivory” in and of itself isn’t relevant enough to today’s times, later Dr. Shirley reveals a deeper secret that gets him into an entirely different kind of trouble with the law, one of the few crimes worse to Deep Southerners than Riding While Black. It’s meant to add another layer to his already complex personality, one that alienates him even more from other blacks than his primness or his complete ignorance of Top 40 hits. But delete the one scene and it would have no effect on the rest of the film. If nothing else, it retroactively reduces some of his traits to yet another sort of stereotyping.

So what’s to like? PG-13 condemnations of bigotry have their place and can reach audiences that would deflect harsher material without thinking twice, even if they’re not exactly pioneering this terrain. It’s not a bad thing to give an audience hope that we really can one day transcend humankind’s most arbitrary divisions. There’s a certain CBS-style simple, relaxing pleasure in enjoying easy victories over one-note adversaries who strain to avoid the dreaded N-word for as long as possible. And Mahershala Ali makes a darn watchable Felix Unger, who even gives us a few scenes of piano virtuosity without a body double…assuming visual effects haven’t come that far along yet.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Green Book end credits, but they do confirm the bulk of filming took place in Louisiana and New York, which means the one scene set in Hanover, Indiana, was a big fat lie.

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