Mahershala Ali gives one of the best performances of the year as Dr. Don Shirley in the new movie GREEN BOOK. Nuanced and witty, his take on the role of the virtuoso pianist being chauffeured around the South for a concert tour is filled with grace, humanity and wry humor. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t nearly as deft or subtle as he is. Instead, it’s riddled with clichés, some cringe-worthy humor, and a buddy comedy sensibility that mars the message. It feels like a film that might have been made 50 years ago, an outdated throwback compared to the likes of the more modern and immediate stories about race relations seen this year in movies like BLACKKKLANSMAN, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BLINDSPOTTING, and THE HATE U GIVE.
Granted, GREEN BOOK is filled with noble intentions as it attempts to be profound about prejudices and contains certain technical charms. It is a meticulous period piece, recreating the 1962 South with detail right down to the furniture in the hotel rooms. The cinematography is warm and shiny, even when the story takes its dark turns. And some of the banter between Shirley and his Brooklyn driver Tommy Lip (Viggo Mortenson) is rollicking, allowing for a prickly back-and-forth between the two wildly different men. Yet, at almost every opportunity to dig deeper into the great divide between the two men, or the issues of bigotry in the south, the script by director Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga refuse to burrow. Instead, it seems content to stay with surface differences and ignore potentially huge issues altogether.
The film is based on a true story of how Shirley, a concert pianist in the Liberace mode, playing light classical fare or giving popular ditties a touch of Mozart-style flourishes, went on tour below the Mason-Dixon line for the holiday season in ’62. He hired Tommy as his driver for his muscle as well as his skills behind the wheel. Shirley and his record company knew that he’d face all kinds of discrimination down south, from restrictive restaurants and hotel rooms to name-calling and potential violence, so they hired the former bouncer from the Copacabana to provide cover. That story would seem to be ripe for a searing examination of the great divide in this country then and now, but instead, most of their run-in’s and experiences are fraught with clichés or heavy-handed humor.
In one of the most egregious running gags in a movie in some time, Tommy has to teach “Doc,” as he calls him, an appreciation for fried chicken. Using a ‘dese’ and ‘dem’ accent like he’s Joe Pesci in MY COUSIN VINNY, Mortenson’s tough guy Tommy not only helps the musician come to appreciate the Colonel’s original recipe, but their dialogue contains a number of references by Tommy to the irony of a black man not appreciating such a meal. And the tin-eared gag comes back again and again.
There are too many cringe-worthy moments like that where Tommy becomes Shirley’s ‘white savior,’ not only helping him avoid grievance bodily harm, but also teaching him to be more down-to-earth and likable. Sure, Doc helps Tommy write letters from the road to his long-suffering wife (an underused Linda Cardellini) with warmth and flair the Neanderthal could never muster on his own, but most of their ‘odd coupling’ concerns Tommy as a teacher while Doc plays his unwitting student. Throughout, the pianist tolerates Tommy’s vulgar language, blunt put-downs, and constant running commentary about the elite that Shirley is playing for, but the driver is presented as honest, unabashed, and a genuine ‘salt of the earth’ type. Tommy even becomes the moral center of the film, despite starting out the story tossing away two glasses that were used by two black handymen in his apartment. It’s not only a huge and frankly unbelievable leap in character and understanding, but it also places Tommy in the same kind of role as the heroic white figure as we saw mar THE HELP with Emma Stone’s character, as well as HIDDEN FIGURES with Kevin Costner’s. Wouldn’t this film have been better if it had been Shirley who tutored Tommy the whole time, teaching him insights on how to be a more modern gentleman? Tommy’s the one who needs the teaching, not Shirley.
Yet, the film refuses to run with such a shrewder slant. When Shirley is arrested for trysting with a white man in the YMCA in one of the southern cities, Tommy bails him out of jail but never seems challenged or even irked by his boss’ homosexuality or the fact that he was caught in such a public place. Where is the dialogue where Shirley talks openly to Tommy about what it means to be gay or cross the color line for love? Those were not only huge issues in the early 60’s, but they certainly would’ve challenged some of the bedrock macho beliefs of a neighborhood guy’s guy like Tony. Instead, it’s never discussed, and the film blithely goes on to the next gag.
The film does show the terrible places that Shirley is forced to stay in, areas that the Green Book travel guide points black travelers to, but not enough is made out of the discrepancies between his lodgings and those of Tony and Shirley’s two white traveling companions – his fellow musicians – in the other car. In fact, the story fails to give either man in the pianist’s trio any real personality. And he seems to have virtually no rapport with either. Were they even friends? The film just doesn’t bother exploring it one iota.
Instead, we get more buffoonery with caricatured moments like Tony rolling up an entire pizza like one would with a single slice to eat it while he’s in bed. The movie makes a big laugh out of Shirley getting them out of extended jail time for Tony’s belting of a police officer by calling in a favor from his friend Robert Kennedy. And Shirley forces Tony to retrieve the litter he’s thrown onto the road like he’s Felix Ungar forcing Oscar Madison to pick up a discarded cigar.
Peter Farrelly, of the famed Farrelly Brothers (THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY), does yeoman work here as director, resisting gross-out humor and outrageously naughty, visual gags as in his previous films, but he glosses over too many ideas worth exploring. Shirley drinks a bottle of Cutty Sark every night, but his apparent alcoholism never seems to become a problem when he plays piano, nor is it given much dialogue other than Tommy scolding his boss for drinking too much.
By the end, they get back to New York in time for Christmas, and all is well. Tony learns just enough about curbing his bigotry to tell his friends not to use slurs when describing people of color, and Shirley learns to step down off his high-horse and rubs shoulders at a Christmas Eve dinner with his new buddy and his family and friends. It doesn’t seem like a strong enough lesson, even in a comedy taking place in 1962, and it indeed fails to make enough of a statement for today’s horribly divided world.