Green Book is not the film I ever expected to see director Peter Farrelly make when I first watched There’s Something About Mary many years ago, and it certainly isn’t the film I expected to win Best Picture for this past year. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprise, considering this makes three years in a row that the Academy has given the award to a film about diversity and discrimination (The Shape of Water may not directly be about race, but I think the allegory is clear). Green Book seems far from the best film of the year, but it is a safe choice in terms of balancing audience enjoyment and social message.
Apparently this is what audiences wanted or needed this year, as many of the heavier dramas went unnoticed during award season and in most of the box office numbers. Although inspired by a true story, the film takes many liberties in order to provide the feel-good narrative that audiences can swallow without any difficulties. In other words, although the film is easily digestible, the viewer with a more sophisticated palate may be aware that they are being fed the cinematic equivalent of baby food. Perhaps the most upsetting thing about the changes made to the real-life story is the fact that they end up creating the same “white savior” narrative that was a problem when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture in 1989.
The alterations also led to outcry from the family of Dr. Don Shirley, played by two-time Academy Award-winner (the second being for this performance) Mahershala Ali, who is often treated as a secondary character in the film. The true lead is Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer and family man trying to make ends meet living in the
Bronx in 1962. When
faced with the option of working for the mob or driving a black musician across
the Mason-Dixon line, Tony takes the more
admirable choice. That’s what characters do in this type of movie. For a movie
about race issues, every moment of prejudice and racism is depicted with
over-simplified situations of good vs. evil, and only the good characters are
round and well-developed.
Despite the fact that Dr. Shirley is a world-class pianist deserving of playing the most prestigious music halls, he makes the choice to tour in the south to make a point. This is a point that will inevitably meet conflict, which is where Tony comes in. As well as being his driver, Tony becomes a much-needed bodyguard and something of a friend along the way. It is all very predictable and heartwarming, if you can ignore the contrivances and narrative manipulations. This is easier to do because of the effectiveness of the acting.
Ultimately, this is a film that would be far less impressive with two different lead actors. The direction, writing, and nearly every other element of the filmmaking are unremarkable. Even the melodrama is almost perfunctory, and it is only the effectiveness of the performers which allowed me to accept them as real people, and not just devices to make an obvious point about race relations. Mortensen packed on weight (as often helps in receiving award attention) to play Tony, also providing the comedic relief of the narrative, as he is constantly eating throughout the movie. Ali takes the heavier sequences in the story, but his character also often feels too melodramatic as a result.
Despite my misgivings about Farrelly as a director, Green Book is actually surprisingly well shot, providing a halfway decent reason to advocate for a 4K purchase. The 4k Ultra HD makes the colors pop, even if the film uses a lot of earth tones. There are also deeper darks in the night scenes, and the audio is pristine. At the same time, the film is just as enjoyable on the Blu-ray disc and digital copy included in the package. There are three featurettes in the extras, although none are much more than five minutes and they are all basically just promotional. It is also telling that Tony Lip’s son is interviewed in one of the features, while Dr. Shirley’s family is pointedly absent.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 8.5/10
Special Features: 3/10