Green Book

Viggo Mortensen and Maher Shala Ali in Green Book

For my money, the best Philly cheese steaks are made with Cheez Whiz. Green Book is movie Cheez Whiz. It’s light, pleasant, comfortable and almost completely devoid of any nutritional value. But boy is it tasty.

It’s probably a little disorienting to refer to a movie about endemic racism and racial segregation in the American South during the early 1960s as light, pleasant and comfortable, but it’s also accurate. The question is, in the current political and racial climate is it okay for us to go along with calculated, predictable and self-satisfied Cheez Whiz. Yeah, it is. Merry Christmas.

Based on a true story (like seemingly everything else being made these days that’s not a comic book flick), Green Book tells the story of brilliant concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Maher Shala Ali) who, in 1962, performed before genteel all-white audiences throughout the deep south. The refined classical musician’s transportation is provided by his Italian, Bronx club bouncer, chauffeur “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen). Did I mention Dr. Shirley is, as they say, a negro?

If this sounds like the recipe for a mismatched buddies take a road trip picture, you’re right. But I liked these buddies and I really enjoyed their trip; right through the Planes, Trains and Automobiles conclusion.

Ably played by Ali, Dr. Shirley reminded me of Sheldon from The Big Band Theory if Sheldon was a Black concert pianist. Both characters are haughty, condescending and contemptuous of anyone they consider a fool.

Mortensen's Tony Lip is a bit more familiar; heavy-set, brawling, scarfing entire large pizzas whole and bellowing “Hey youse guys” on cue. He’s the personification of the ignorant fool Shirley detests most, but he has the muscles and the enthusiasm for using them that might come in handy during their tour of the old Confederacy. By the way, he’s white.

Ali and Mortensen carry this film almost entirely on their own. The other characters are stereotypical southern lawmen who could have been played by anyone--loud obnoxious Italian in-laws straight out of central casting and the type of condescending country club hypocrites you’ve seen a hundred times in movies and on TV. Fortunately Ali and Mortensen are excellent, not to mention great fun to watch.

The one exception to this formula might be Tony Lip’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini). Dolores is a little too enlightened to be taken seriously as a 1960’s Bronx housewife, but Cardellini brings strength, intelligence and additional gentleness to this gently told story. 

Maybe Green Book is a little too easy. Tony’s transformation from confrontational bigot to patient friend is almost instantaneous and comes with no second thoughts.

Dr. Shirley’s life is more complex. He’s revered in the white community, but strictly within the context of his art. Outside of it, he’s just another negro who needs to find somewhere else to eat. Shirley’s even more alien to the Black sharecroppers and busboys he encounters throughout the South. Unlike Tony, he’s never heard of Fats Domino or Little Richard and is offended by the notion that he’d have a clue about how to eat a fried chicken drumstick.

In a pivital scene, Tony, the blue collar schlub who’s always scratched to make a living for his close-knit family, angrily insists he’s more “Black” than the classically educated virtuoso. The exchange is a handy stage for Dr. Shirley’s necessary change of heart and conveniently ignores the fact that Tony’s never in danger of being lynched.

Alright, the storyline is a touch preposterous at times.

But Get out, Sorry to Bother You and BlacKKlansman are among recent films that have done a great job of dissecting American racism, often in a bizarre and horrific fashion. The degradation and violence in 12 Years a Slave, The Help, D’Jango Unchained and other productions has often bordered on unbearable. It’s not as though Hollywood has shied away from the most sinister aspects of our racial divide.

A friend of mine praised Green Book as his choice for best movie of the year. Another insightful writer I know shredded the film as drivel from beginning to end. I’ll go with my friend. Not necessarily as best movie of the year, but as a film that knows what it is and succeeds. Sometimes it’s OK to cooperate with a movie. Just sit back and enjoy the journey guilt free. Not every film has to be an exploration of our darkest recesses. Every now and again we’re allowed to celebrate Peace on Earth Goodwill Toward Men.

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.