Green Book is a diverting buddy film designed to make viewers feel virtuous. It tells the true story of Jamaican classical pops pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he forges with New York city bouncer Tony Vellelonga (Viggo Mortensen) in the early 1960s.
It’s established from the jump that tough-guy Tony is good husband and family man but also, quite clearly, a racist. When two black handymen come to his house, he throws away the glasses they drank lemonade out of. Tony’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), is disappointed and exasperated in a sitcom wife sort of way, and she fishes the glasses out of the trash can. But she never confronts him on it. (It’s not that kind of film.)
Briefly out of work when the club he’s working at closes for renovations, Tony goes on a job interview in a luxe apartment above Carnegie Hall. Don Shirley emerges, dressed in kingly silk robes, and literally sits upon a throne. He is tended to, fastidiously, by his footman Amit (Iqbal Theba). Here, in New York City and the rarefied world of classical music, he is treated like royalty. But he is about to embark on a tour of the Deep South and he needs both a driver and some muscle (the Green Book is a reference to an actual directory of motels in the Deep South where black people were allowed to lodge safely). Eventually, Tony agrees to the job.
In true sitcom fashion, everything about the film is served BROADLY. Tony is an uncouth goombah who chain smokes, eats with his hands, and can’t wait to hear Shirley play music by that Polish guy “Joe Pan” (I kid you not). Shirley is as elegant, cultured, and imperious as he could possibly be. The actors give it their all, but they come across as extreme caricatures. Of the two, Ali is doing something more interesting: One could believe that Shirley would put on airs of haughty sophistication to fend off any who might question his absolute refinement and civility.
It’s fun to see the two men bicker and banter, in an Odd Couple sort of way—although a bit where Tony teaches Shirley to eat fried chicken was ill-conceived, at best.
Green Book might’ve been onto something if Tony was actually allowed a growth arc, if we got to see more of the ugliness of his previous beliefs and watched him shed his racist instincts in a slow and believable way. But the film, directed by former gross-out comedy guru Peter Farrelly, never challenges us, it’s designed to comfort and reassure. So instead, almost immediately upon embarking on their road trip, Tony is suddenly not racist!™—but in fact, a loyal and protective friend to Shirley who is horrified by the discrimination his new boss must endure. Later, when it is revealed that Shirley is a homosexual, Tony also handles that with credulity-straining equanimity.
Green Book is an undeniable crowd-pleaser, but it’s high-minded kitsch masquerading as art. On the way out, I heard one filmgoer say to a friend, “That’s going to win a bunch of Oscars.” God, I hope not.