The best way to describe Green Book is that it’s a topical movie that has its heart in the right place but still falters because of its safe and narrow-minded nature. Despite the poster saying it’s inspired by a true friendship, the film is mainly interested in one half of that friendship. As a result, we get a look at historical American racism that is made presentable in a way that it’s problematic.
In a rather awkward fashion, Green Book is chiefly about Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a New York club bouncer who chauffeured a famed pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) across the Deep South for a concert tour. It’s also quite frustrating that the movie is mainly about Tony’s story and that it treats Don as little more than a cipher because Mahershala Ali’s performance is so terrific. The script does Ali little favors but he effortlessly presents a man clearly trapped between two worlds: the predominantly white, aristocratic world he does concerts in and his world off the stage where he is treated like a regular African-American in the '60s. Don is mainly written as rather stoic but Ali still manages to showcase the anxiety Don feels over navigating a world that is unkind to him.
As for Viggo Mortensen, his performance as a stereotypical Bronx Italian is as hammy as the meaty foods he constantly eats. However, he still wonderfully plays against type as the outgoing, loud-mouthed Tony Lip even if the screenplay doesn’t give him much of an arc which makes the friendship between Tony and Don rather questionable. It’s like Don’s influence in Tony’s life only makes him just a tad less racist than he actually is.
It’s made clear before the road trip begins that Tony is prejudiced and as previously mentioned, there are little occurrences used to make Tony confront his own racism. Yet somehow, because he’s somewhat nice to an African-American, he’s suddenly less racist. I get that it’s a fictional account of a real-life story but people that exhibit this kind of behavior don’t see the error of their ways out of nowhere.
The absence of Tony’s arc only plays into the escapist notions that the film aims to present. Much like other mainstream movies that depict racism that it’ll be inevitably compared to like The Blind Side and The Help, Green Book attempts to showcase its subject matter in a sugar-coated manner as if times weren’t that rough for African-Americans back then.
While I’m sure others will be taken by its crowd-pleasing nature, I was left unsatisfied by Green Book. What could’ve been a more fleshed-out depiction of its central friendship ends up being a sanitized look at racial relations that aims to be as accessible as possible so that white audience members can pat themselves on the back by the time the credits roll. Simply put, it’s a movie about racism by whites for whites and in a year full of extraordinary films about race by black filmmakers, Green Book sticks out like a sore thumb partially because of that.