There are some movies, like people, that seem determined to please. Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is such a film. Though most people-pleasing fare is light and buoyant, Green Book’s subject matter is not, though its style is.
It’s based on a true musical tour in the 1960s of the Midwest and Jim Crow deep south by the Jamaican born pianist and composer, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). At the time, Shirley, a classical oriented musician and composer, was playing a style of music, accompanied by a cellist and bassist, that fell in-between most traditional categories. It was too classical for jazz, too jazzy for classical, too pop for either. Popular primarily with white audiences, or so the movie would have you believe, it was both virtuosic and people pleasing. Shirley’s actual body of work is wildly diverse and singular, as intelligent as its creator.
But this movie is not overly interested in the music, and only passingly interested in Dr. Shirley. The music and the man is a means to an end. And the end is always to please.
The film is focused on the relationship between Don Shirley and his driver/security, Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip. A former bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is an easygoing but quick to throw a punch (and follow it up with a few more) Italian-American from New York, who takes on any number of odd jobs, even ones that require him to be away for an eight week tour just before Christmas, and some which require mixing with mob figures but never committing, all to put food on the table for a much loved wife and a pair of young boys.
Tony begins the film about as racist as one would expect from a man of his time and sub-culture, which is a vague description but just about as vague as it’s played out in the film. In a scene early on where he’s confronted with two glasses out of which two black handymen have drank, he pauses long enough before throwing them away to tell us his racism is not to the bone. And that practically is the end of the examination of Tony. He’s put off by the Jim Crow inequalities; put off by the hypocrisy of the genteel white folk who applaud Shirley but won’t dine with him, etc. All reactions that make him suitably likable.
But as for a thoughtful look at Tony’s character, after accepting the job — the money is more important than any social issue — Tony’s attitudes towards race are nearly taken off the table. He’s a loyal employee with a growing appreciation and affection for his talented boss. More than anything, he’s a nice guy.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tony right on the edge of stereotype. He’s too good an actor, and Farrelly is clearly aiming higher than Dumb and Dumber in this prestige-hungry film, to push him over the edge, but he’s unmistakably a type. One gets the impression that Mortensen was aching to go deeper, but the script, written tellingly by Tony’s son, along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie, is more interested in moving the story along than getting into the heart of it. And it wants to make Tony a lovable hero. What son would want to do anything different?
As a result, the film aims directly at scenes that put a glow both on the characters and in the audience’s heart. To do this though, the villains have to be easily recognizable and at times, like the bar scene with the racists, shallowly acted, and most crisis solved with a combination of loyalty and humor. This is, at its core, a buddy film.
Which brings us back to Dr. Don Shirley. He was in truth a remarkable man. He held three doctorates, studied at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music at the age of nine, spoke 8 languages, wrote symphonies: A real prodigy. We learn all of this exposition from the character himself, but we rarely get beneath the credentials and accomplishments.
Who is Don Shirley? The film teases us. Mahershala’s restrained and dignified performance, like Mortensen’s flamboyant performance, aches to go further and deeper. The film skips along the surface of his conflicted relationships with whites and blacks, with his sexual orientation, with his isolation, but there is other chicken to fry. Yes, there is a scene, two scenes actually, about fried chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken even. The scenes play off each other well; they make their point.
But the complexity of Dr. Shirley, to say nothing of the complexity of race in America, is not on this film’s itinerary. Rather, it’s a quick swing through the South, which it’s surface antagonisms (the Green Book of the title is a guide to safe tourism for African-Americans, which hotels will house them, which restaurants will serve them), and a warm return to a cozy, celebratory dinner around the New York family table. Nearly all the stops are predictable and designed to please and satisfy: Two wildly different men become friends; And all the feel-good touches are along for the ride. The filmmakers clearly hope and aim for the next stop being the Oscars.