Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in a Freaky Friday’d Driving Miss Daisy, was easily one of last year’s worst Oscar contenders. I have not seen Vice or A Star is Born so I can’t say for sure, but even a cursory glance at the synopsis could tell you this movie wasn’t fit to hold the jockstrap of The Favourite or First Man. A buddy road trip movie where a black man and a white man overcome their differences and learn to get along because, hey man, we are all human beings right, is the kind of broad, ridiculous Social Message movie that right from the get-go you know is gonna suck. So I fully expected Green Book to be bad. But my God, I was utterly shocked at just how awful this film was.
First of all, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the movie is directed by Peter Farrlley, one half of the brain trust behind such films as Dumb and Dumber, and Dumb and Dumberer To. Now, we should not necessarily judge a director based only on his past films as history is no guarantor of the future, but in this case… yes we can. Then you have the fact that the real-life son of Tony Lip, the character played by Viggo Mortensen, has a screenplay credit and it begins to dawn on you that this film had an almost impossibly steep hill to climb from the outset.
The opening thirty minutes of this film are some of the worst filmmaking I think I have ever seen. The goal of this section is to set up the stakes – we have a tough as nails Italian wiseguy who works as a bouncer at the Copa in 1960s New York – Tony Lip. He’s bigoted and can be violent, but only when necessary; he’s generally a hard-working family man and has a moral compass. He then gets a job working for an effete, upper-class black piano prodigy, Doctor Shirley and together they begin a tour of the Southern United States where they encounter racism and prejudice and learn to overcome their differences and, ultimately, develop a bond that blurs the line between employee and friend.
The idea that racism can be overcome by taking a road trip with a black person is the kind of absurd white person delusion about race in America that got us stuck with Donald Trump in the first place. But I mean, that’s already obvious from the title card. This is a weirdly backward-looking social issues movie with skin-deep commentary, like the kind you might have found in the 1980s or 90s. Why it’s making a resurgence right now, after the lie of a post-racial America has already been fully exposed, is a fucking mystery to me.
But OK, sometimes sentimental tripe can still work if it’s well-made. But this movie is so obvious, so broad, so clumsy that it almost – almost – works as unintentional comedy or as a parody of an Important Social Message picture. The first act of the film is literally drowning in Italian stereotypes like…. olive oil on a hot pizza pie! [imagine this being said in your most comically over-the-top goombah accent] There would be virtually no way for me to accurately describe just how ridiculous this part of the movie is, except as a Bizarro Godfather.
At one point Tony Lip takes an entire pizza, folds it in half, and starts eating it while sitting in bed and I can’t remember if this is before or after the hot dog eating contest where he downs 28 wieners. It is wall-to-wall funhouse accents and stereotypes that are so comically absurd you could easily be watching an SNL skit. It would be funny, except I don’t think it’s meant to be funny. I think it’s actually meant to establish real stakes, so that by the time Tony embraces diversity we can see the arc he has traveled and understand how he has changed.
This movie would only work for absolute fucking imbeciles. It is made and designed in the broadest, most obvious way possible so that you would have to be probably the stupidest person on earth not to get the message they are trying to drill into your skull. And honestly, if you need to be spoon-fed these kind of broad ideas about Why Racism is Bad, then you are already part of the problem and this movie isn’t going to change anything. Just to give you an example of the kind of movie this is – at one point the car breaks down. Guess where it breaks down. Right in front of a field full of black workers, who stop hoeing the grown to gaze accusingly at Mahershala Ali. That is the kind of movie this is. If it were any more obvious, they would have named the film Gay Piano Genius Uncle Tom.
Is there any saving grace to this film? Well, miraculously they got two really, really good actors to star in this piece of shit somehow. So, despite the material, despite everything that the script is forcing them to say in service of some shallow nonsense about racism, in scenes that just feature the two of them they actually inject a little life into them. And somehow Viggo manages to kind of make his character’s arc work, just because, you know, he’s that good of an actor.
But papering over all the other terrible aspects of this movie with excellent acting is not gonna save you. The best way I can describe Green Book is like the anti-Moonlight. It has the most conventional narrative possible featuring broadly drawn caricatures who spend the entire film pointing a flashing neon sign to the most obvious, shallowest messages about race and prejudice imaginable. I expected it to be bad. But I was surprised at just how truly awful this movie was.