Green Book (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Green Book (2018) has been getting a lot of attention during the awards season. Some has been positive, but much if it has been negative. From one of the stars dropping the N-word during a Q&A, to the family of Dr. Shirley claiming the relationship is being misrepresented, to the resurfaced, deplorable behavior by the director and writer…the conversation of “art versus the artist” has been reignited. That’s not even mentioning the white savior trope that comes into play at several points in the film, making it difficult to side with the new Peter Farrelly film. However, the cast and the chemistry between them make it hard to not enjoy watching the film.

Green Book was definitely entertaining

In 1962, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is in need of work while the Copacabana is under repairs. He’s offered the role of a driver for the musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he tours the south. The film is loosely based on their true story – at least from one perspective – and it really allows the odd couple dynamic to flourish with these two excellent actors.

Mortensen and Ali are both phenomenal in this movie. It is impossible to watch them work and not be sucked in. Dr. Shirley has an air of nobility about him, which is in direct contrast to Tony’s everyman personality. Tony has a very stereotypical perspective of Dr. Shirley, which only makes elements of the narrative all the more uncomfortable to appreciate in hindsight. However, the interaction between the two men is generally touching, and you really believe the two form a strong bond over their time together, which is spent primarily on the road. While it is problematic when Tony is teaching Dr. Shirley how to be “black”, there are other moments where Shirley is helping Tony to become a bit more refined, which helps restore some of the balance.

It should be noted that at no point does Dr. Shirley – or more importantly, Ali’s portrayal of him – appear to feel or be okay with the points that Tony is making. A scene that is shown in many of the trailers is where Tony is chowing down on fried chicken and offers Dr. Shirley a piece that he initially declines,  This is met with Tony saying, “You people love the fried chicken.” The clear stereotype is met with “you have a very narrow assessment of me,” by Dr. Shirley, and the resulting concession of him taking the chicken is quite humorous. Shirley’s upper-class sensibilities have kept him from eating with his fingers, and the apprehension he exhibits when grasping the piece is quite funny.  

Final thoughts…

There are definitely reasons to not support this movie, but I did find that the balance of the relationship and the high caliber of performances made it impossible to not enjoy. While the plot is admittedly problematic at times (and the messages are pretty clear), Green Book had too much charm to fail. I truly want to believe that Tony Lip’s perspective on black people, and hopefully the concept of stereotyping in general, was truly changed by the time he spent with Dr. Shirley. Thus, Green Book earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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