In 1962, an Italian nightclub worker takes a job driving a black piano player during a tour from the Midwest through the Deep South.
Funny, Touching Script;
The Story Plays Too Safe, But;
Lead Actors Excel.
This is one of the more challenging reviews I’ve had to write since joining this website. My head has been all over the place since seeing this last night, and the thing is…I enjoyed it. Quite a bit, make no mistake. But a little voice couldn’t stop nagging at me to dig beneath the surface; looking past face value reveals a bit of masked ugliness that I believe the filmmakers wanted to remain hidden beneath the glossy veneer of its feel good nature and wonderful actors. I’ll try to explain in a pro and con sort of way.
What I liked: Obviously, the main hook for this movie is the pairing of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in the modern day reverse Driving Miss Daisy story, and that aspect delivers on its promise several times over. Their chemistry is great, as each gradually wear down the other’s defenses with their polar opposite personalities. Yes, it is formulaic from a buddy comedy standpoint, but these two make it work. They play off each other well, representing a stereotypical, silhouetted view of the other man’s race. Tony (Mortensen) feels at home shooting dice in the streets and eating fried chicken while Don (Ali) has proper diction and a no-nonsense attitude. It is a rigid and narrow view of race, but the script does this on purpose to drive the point home once they learn and grow together. It is saccharine, yes, but in a year with such heavy, racially-charged fare on the silver screen (Monsters and Men, The Hate U Give and Blindspotting, just to name a few), it is okay to be the lightweight, charming movie to end the year on. And charm is something this movie isn’t short on. The script is funny and heartfelt, the family bonds are strong, and you will smile throughout the two hour runtime (the bit with Tony’s letters to his wife and a payoff line of dialogue in the final stretch is especially grin-inducing).
What I didn’t like: This movie is clearly designed to be a comforting pat on the back for white people. It is entirely too safe. We live in a turbulent time and the period of the film was an especially volatile one, so why do we need to be spoonfed? It is written by a white people, directed by a white person, told from a white perspective and features a black lead that is made as “white” as possible (in a sense). This is a sheltered, low stakes view of racism made to be easily digestible for a white audience. As such, its motives seem underhanded at times, even when it is delivering a good theater experience. Another issue is that the Negro Motorist Green Book, the very namesake of the film, is totally glossed over and only mentioned fleetingly, its historical importance undercut entirely. If you’re going to name the movie after a very important work, can you at least tell us more about it? Or was that not even researched?
This is a tried and true formula, where stereotypes are embraced and challenged, prejudices acknowledged and overcome, worlds collide and people adapt to suit their circumstances. Both men have a hard line that gradually softens (Tony with his “casual” racism where he doesn’t mind living in a neighborhood with black families but won’t be inviting them to dinner, and Don with his stiff, starched body language and restricted knowledge of black culture), as they teach and learn from each other. Tony is a simple man of simple tastes, thoughts and actions, whereas everything Don does is planned, measured and controlled. Don is the definition of a loner whereas Tony thrives at family meals and his job at the Copacabana. Don is an intellectual (his multiple PhDs are mentioned but swept aside so he can function mostly as the musician that drives the plot) who lives above Carnegie Hall, while Tony can certainly spell “book” but likely hasn’t ready many. Despite his racist leanings, Tony understands that respect goes a long way and demonstrates that belief throughout. He doesn’t hide a thing about who he is and wouldn’t expect anyone else to, either. He is, cliches abound, a man of his people. Don, on the other hand, feels alienated from everyone, black and white alike, and even suggests Tony shorten his last name to make it easier for others to pronounce. Basically, the idea that they couldn’t be more different is driven into the ground so the final scenes feel more uplifting, predictable though they are.
Overall, Farrelly has delivered a good film, albeit a flawed one. His direction is so easygoing you don’t even notice it, as he stays entirely out of the way and showcases not one discernible ounce of flair or style (it is certainly no Sorry to Bother You in terms of tone, ambition or subtext). Hell, his camera almost never moves. But despite its misguided intentions, it is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, should it find its (sure to be mostly white and likely middle aged) audience. I am interested to see if the Academy will give out some acting nominations, and wouldn’t rule out a Best Picture nod as well, unless a lot of the Academy voters also feel like they can see through it. This is a quite a good film with an excellent one hiding inside it. I just can’t help but wish that’s the one we got to see.