Green Book is the very successful, based-on-a-true-story, buddy movie set in 1962.
It follows Tony Lip (viggo Mortensen), a working class Italian American chauffeur and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a rich and famous black musician. It won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, a dubious choice in the eyes of many commentators, who described the film as ‘racially tone deaf’ and full of ‘racial clichés’. So did Green Book deserve to win?
This film does have many flaws, the main one being its very formulaic story. When Tony Lip, an Italian American who loves to talk and eat, generally both at once, accepts a job as a chauffeur for a “doctor”, he has no idea what his job will entail. The doctor in question is a black classical musician who needs someone to protect him in his musical tour of the south of the U.S. (The book referenced in the title was a guide used by black motorists to help them avoid the dangers of road travel, especially below the Mason-Dixon line.)
Will these two very different people get along? Will they manage to accept their differences and maybe even learn from each other? Duh, of course they will.
It is the kind of film where you can guess most of what will happen: the working class, relaxed character will teach the more wealthy and serious character how to have fun, and the wealthy character will teach the working class character how to be more open-minded.
However, even with all the overused story devices, this film works surprisingly well. The tone is perfect, never cheesy, and it gives us a glimpse of complex issues that save the film from feeling superficial. This perfect tone has a lot to do with the perfect performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. They have created relatable characters, full of good qualities and flaws. From the way they eat and talk, to how they handle problems, there is a certain beauty in their very different ways of existing. Neither character stands out more than the other and this is why, unlike some critics, I did not feel that this was a racist story. As expected, they connect along the way and a friendship forms. The stellar performances of the actors and the well-written script (co-written by the son of the real-life Tony Lip!) create many enjoyable and interesting scenes that play on the differences between the two characters.
I quite liked how they reversed the expected clichés with the white protagonist being working class and the black character belonging to a life of luxury. The director clearly enjoyed disturbing expected stereotypes: for instance, Tony introduces the delights of fried chicken and Little Richard to Don, who as a black person would be expected to know these things. Green Book constantly stresses that there is more to people than appearances, an obvious but important message. This film also reminds us that just because you are of a certain gender or race, you do not have to identify with that group, as Don Shirley’s lack of connection with jazz music and what is expected of people like him reveals.
So did this film deserve the Oscar? Because of the performances and themes tackled, I can understand why it won. It was not my own first choice (in my view Roma is a masterpiece that outshines Green Book, but as it is in black and white with subtitles it might not appeal to mass audiences) but it does have a charming, classic Hollywood feel to it. The director Peter Farelly (yes from the Farelly Brothers!) plays around with formulas intelligently, similar to the recent successes of La La land and A Star is Born. The film manages to make us forget how many times we have seen the same plot devices, because of the interesting world and characters it presents.
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