Green Book (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Driving for his black employer

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“Green Book”, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival several months ago, is a mild crowd-pleaser film which would probably be more acceptable if it had been made around 30 years ago. While it is a fairly watchable mix of road movie and buddy film mainly thanks to its two charismatic main performers, the movie also feels rather naïve, corny, and biased in terms of storytelling and characterization, and I came to observe it from the distance even while admiring the efforts of its two main performers, who inarguably did their best for elevating their film beyond its clichés and conventions.

Viggo Mortensen, who looks as paunchy as me here in this film, plays Frank Vallelonga, who is your average Bronx Italian tough guy and works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, 1962. When the nightclub is going to be closed for renovations, Vallelonga looks for any temporary job because he does not have much money for him and his family at present, and he is certainly interested when he hears that someone is interested in hiring him as a chauffeur.

His potential employer in question is an African American classical and jazz pianist named Don Shirley, who is effortlessly played with sophistication and dignity by Mahershala Ali. When Vallelonga visits Shirley’s luxurious residence located right above the Carnegie Hall, there are a few other guys willing to drive for Shirley, and Vallelonga does not give much good impression to Shirley during his job interview as he refuses to do anything else besides working as a chauffeur/bodyguard, but, what do you know, he is hired anyway because Shirley thinks Vallelonga is a right guy who can help and protect him during the upcoming 8-week concert tour around a number of states including the ones belonging to the Deep South.

When he is about to depart from his home in a Bronx neighborhood, Vallelonga receives a certain guidebook for African-American travelers. Written by Victor Hugo Green, the Negro Motorist Green Book contained a list of motels and restaurants that would accept colored people, and this guidebook surely reminds us of how openly racial segregation was accepted in the 1960s despite the ongoing rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

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At first, like many other road movie duos, Vallelonga and Shirley do not get along well with each other mainly due to many gaps and differences between them. While Shirley is annoyed by Vallelonga’s rough, unsophisticated attitude, Vallelonga is not so pleased with Shirley’s uptight, fastidious appearance, and the main amusement during the first half of the movie comes from how frequently they pull or push each other as Vallelonga keeps driving for Shirley as demanded. They do not like each other a lot, but both of them need each other anyway, so they eventually come to reach to a sort of equilibrium status while maintaining some distance between them.

Of course, Vallelonga comes to like and respect Shirley as spending more time with him during their journey. After quite impressed during Shirley’s private concert for a bunch of rich people in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he comes to see more of his employer’s human sides, and the movie tries to generate some laughs when Vallelonga finds how much Shirley is far from the stereotype images of African Americans. At one point, he is surprised to find that his employer is not so familiar with several popular African American pop musicians such as Little Richard, and, during one of the silliest moments in the film, he is quite determined to give his employer a little taste of fried chicken when they enter, yes, Kentucky.

As expected from the beginning, the movie takes a few dark narrative turns when they go through those Deep South states, but its depiction of racism and racial segregation is mostly predictable and superficial. We are not so shocked when Shirley is unjustly discriminated by despicable Southern bigots, and we are not that surprised when Vallelonga becomes angry about that while Shirley keeps his cool appearance as much as he can. Mainly sticking to Vallelonga’s viewpoint, the movie does not convey to us enough what is being at stake for Shirley, and it does not even delve into a certain aspect of Shirley’s personal life, which surely makes him a very specific social minority individual.

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As some of you already know, the movie is inspired by a real-life story and has been criticized a lot for its inaccurate presentation of that real-life story. I am not against any fictional modification, but I must point out that the screenplay by Nick Vallelonga (he is one of Vallelonga’s two real-life sons, by the way), Brian Hayes Currie, and director Peter Farrelly is hampered by several heavy-handed moments such as when its two main characters come to clash hard with each other due to their different views on race later in the story, and, in my humble opinion, the story could be more balanced and interesting if it focused more on Shirley’s position.

Anyway, I still appreciate a solid duo performance by Mortensen and Ali, who will probably get Oscar-nominated together this month. As wielding a thick Italian accent as required, Mortensen somehow makes his rough stereotype character more likable than expected, and Ali, who recently became more prominent thanks to his Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Moonlight” (2016), is suitably dapper and debonair while ably functioning as an effective counterpart to his co-star. In case of the other notable performers in the film, most of them are stuck with their underdeveloped supporting characters, but Linda Cardellini, who plays Vallelonga’s caring wife, manages to hold her own small place at the fringe of the story, and she is one of a few other reasons why the sentimental finale of the movie works to some degree besides Mortensen and Ali.

Overall, “Green Book” is not a terrible film at all, but it is just mildly entertaining without much impression. Compared to recent racial drama films such as “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) and “Blindspotting” (2018), the movie feels dated and edgeless to say the least, and it is even less memorable compared to “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “The Help” (2011), which, despite their mild presentation of the racial segregation in the Deep South in the 1960s, engaged and touched me mainly thanks to their strong characters and performances. It may make its audiences feel as good as expected, but I doubt whether it will be remembered well after the end of the Oscar season of this year.

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