‘Green Book’ is a Modestly Enjoyable Movie, But It Shouldn’t Have Won Best Picture

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures/Participant Media

Of all the Best Picture winners since I’ve been closely following the Oscars (starting with Titanic 21 years ago), none besides Green Book has provoked a more diverse and contradictory set of reactions within myself. There have been better winners, and there have been worse winners, but none have given me more confusing emotions.

Upon my initial viewing of the (mis)adventures of Tony Lip and Don Shirley, I found myself as crowd-pleased as the film’s biggest proponents had promised. But the contingent of critics who considered Green Book antiquated or even regressive made some good points that I felt obligated to reckon with. But I had the nagging sense that they were missing the mark just a bit. It felt worth defending, but in a tricky way I was not quite sure how best to explain. And then I read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take in The Hollywood Reporter, and it started to click.

One particular point in that piece stood out, in which the former NBA great and astute cultural critic noted that black people “know that after viewing the movie, some white people will be self-congratulatory and dismissive by saying, ‘Well, at least it’s not like that anymore.’ But others will be moved to see how those events in history have shaped our current challenges.” Unsurprisingly enough, a common criticism of Green Book I’ve seen is that it caters to supposedly progressive white people who like to think that stories like this prove that racism has been more or less “solved.” And maybe there are people like that, but those missing the point shouldn’t strip the film of what merits it does have.

Where Green Book most excels is in its portrayal of a burgeoning friendship. This is a story setup that we as a species keep returning to because it has proven to be consistently fruitful. Tony and Don are two very different men who find themselves forced to spend long periods of time together in tight spaces. Even if you take away the racial component, their backgrounds are still miles apart (although, to be sure, the black/white divide does play a part in their other differences). Tony is family-oriented, vulgar, and unignorable, while Don is isolated, cultured, and preeminently even-keeled. Green Book does not in any way solve racism, but it is not trying to be so ambitious as to eradicate or even merely least tackle something so systemic. It is a modest movie: old-fashioned, but not regressive.

Amidst all the awards-season hubbub, I had forgotten what I had truly liked about Green Book, so I revisited my original review, where I was a little surprised to be reminded that what I most connected to was Tony Lip’s insatiable appetite. For my money, the best moments are when he wins a bet by eating a bunch of hot dogs and, of course, when he folds an entire pizza in half to bite into the whole thing. This was clearly a passion project for Tony Lip’s real life son, Nick Vallelonga, one of the screenwriters and producers. And as far as I can tell, his motivation was nothing so high-minded as to fix what ails society, but rather, merely to tell his dad’s story, and spread the joie de vivre inherent in that tale.

But as much as I enjoyed Green Book, it was a dispiriting Best Picture selection. As a film that succeeded at a modest goal, its win was like receiving an award for “best high school athlete” at the Olympics (or maybe the inverse of that). As an old-fashioned throwback, it does not really push cinema forward in any way. Academy voters are left to themselves to decide what criteria constitutes the best movie of the year, so I do not know how many of them are using the “push cinema forward” metric, but I would highly recommend that they use it. But that lack of cinematic innovation is not really why it didn’t deserve to win, and here we come to the other, perhaps more important, metric for determining the Best Picture, which is: which of the nominated films has the best message? According to its campaign, Green Book‘s message was a tribute to the power of coming together despite our differences in these divisive times, which understandably rang hollow to a lot of people. When it came to racial commentary, this was by no means the most astute film of 2018, or even the most astute Best Picture nominee of 2018.

But what if the narrative had been different? What if Green Book‘s team had instead been pushing its message of a man with a boundless appetite and a man with a more restrained appetite learning from each other? If each campaign stop had focused around the hot dogs and the pizza and and the fried chicken, I doubt that its Oscar chances would have been as strong as they were, but its merits would have been advertised more accurately. And thus a more delicious sort of chaos would have reigned. So to all you Oscar campaigners, I say: embrace the crudeness now and forevermore!

This Is a Movie Review: Green Book

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CREDIT: Patti Perret/Universal Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Racist Encounters, But Not So Intense That They Require an R Rating

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 21, 2018

Is there any real living person with an appetite like that of Frank Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip”? This is a character who has taken to heart the advice to always do everything 100%, which when it comes to food, means to devour whatever he’s eating like it’s his last meal. Tony Lip was a real person who worked at the Copacabana in his early days and went on to be an actor in the likes of Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos. When we meet a fictionalized version of Tony in the 1960s in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, he’s eating 26 hot dogs in one sitting to win a $50 bet and getting ready to be the personal driver to a black jazz musician who is going on a tour that will take him through the Deep South. I don’t know if the real Tony ate everything in sight the way that Viggo Mortensen-as-Tony does, but if this characteristic were not based at least somewhat in reality, it would be plainly outrageous. But for as over-the-top as Mortensen plays Tony, I can recognize something familiar in his joie de vivre, as I, for one, am pretty shameless. But even for me, folding an entire pizza pie in half to eat the whole thing at once is a bridge too far. (Although now that I think about it, I might do that if someone dared me.)

Much more universally relatable, despite being a much more idiosyncratic character, is Tony’s passenger, Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). He is stuck between so many worlds, uncertain of where he really fits in, but he does his best to project a true version of himself. In other words, he is like all of us. A classically trained pianist who would much rather be playing Bach and Beethoven, he accepts that he must rely on jazz to find himself an audience. But he is hardly a part of the mainstream, as he is barely aware of the work of contemporary black pop musicians like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin. Having been born in Jamaica and spent a good portion of his childhood training in Russia, he can barely relate to his fellow black Americans. And as much as he shares cultural tastes with his high society white audiences, they do not exactly consider him a peer, considering that institutionalized segregation means that he cannot eat alongside them even when he is their guest of honor. On top of all that, he is estranged from his family, leaving him precious little in the way of emotional stability.

The story of Green Book is how these two men find something fulfilling in each other over the course of miles on the road. But as heartwarming as it is, theirs is only one small tale in the face of the massive hatred that they lived through and that continues to exist today. Farrelly and his actors do not ignore this context (this context being “life on Earth”). That means that Tony and Don must contend with institutionalized racism and racist thoughtlessness and general thoughtlessness on their way to genuine friendship. Will telling their story make a difference in this misbegotten world? Who’s to say, but what is more certain is that it resonates in the moment, and honest companionship and open-heartedness is valuable wherever you can find it.

Green Book is Recommended If You Like: The friendships of Men in Black, Shrek, Lethal Weapon, etc.

Grade: 4 out of 5 KFC Buckets