Green Book isn’t a comedy, but it should have been. This road movie about the temperamental tug-of-war between an Italian nightclub bouncer and a black jazz pianist merely repeats Neil Simon’s Odd Couple formula. But because it is also a post-Obama buddy movie, the men’s racial difference looms large — in fact, it haunts their on-the-road adventures in which the white man chauffeurs the black man through the horrors of America’s Deep South during the early 1960s. Green Book is so heavy with seriousness that any humor about the essential qualities the men share — or that complement their unlikely friendship — is lost. This misjudgment fails to reverse the lachrymose gimmick of Driving Miss Daisy. It’s as if we’ve gone backwards since the American mainstream hid national tensions behind that film’s namby-pamby panacea.
At first distrustful of each other, Tony (Viggo Mortensen) from the Bronx and Don (Mahershala Ali), who lives in a pied-à-terre above Carnegie Hall, gradually come to preach at each other. Their relationship (supposedly based on the actual, real-life story of Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley) is a self-righteous metaphor for . . . what? In the post-Obama era, that old Hollywood bromide “brotherhood” is virtually non-existent unless you bought the charade that Obama actually would pay the mortgage for his bestie Joe Biden.
Given the self-deceiving dishonesty of that politically calculated posture, we’re unable to evaluate the superficialities of our different tribes, and so we can’t laugh at them. In one of several ludicrous, lesson-teaching episodes, Tony introduces Don to fried chicken — and the carefree etiquette of eating in a Cadillac’s backseat — and then tossing the bones out of the window onto the highway. Not just a reversal of stereotype, it’s liberation! The white slob who was repulsed at the idea of black handymen drinking water from his kitchen glassware finds a soulmate and so does the lonely, effete black. (Don even becomes Cyrano de Bergerac dictating love letters to the illiterate Tony’s wife.)
The social distances fostered by race and class, which the media consistently pretend have been ameliorated, are reinforced by this delusion and become nearly insurmountable. So Hollywood panders, using feel-good nostrums, toying with suspicions that are almost premonitory, yet it never faces the root of segregated cultural customs. Don studied classical music in Russia; Tony introduces him to Little Richard and Fats Domino on the Cadillac’s radio. What about jazz pianist Art Tatum?
Named after the mid-20th-century artifact, The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, which listed restricted hotels (for “travelling while black”), this movie employs that too-easy nostalgia for the civil-rights era — as if society, law, culture, and justice had all stayed the same. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain politely corrected Oprah Winfrey when she recently stoked lynching fears: “Quit dreaming of a better yesterday,” he said. Green Book is part of the same, perverse regression that keeps reviving the sappy To Kill a Mockingbird as a cultural totem (unless it becomes inconvenient, as when that novel’s rape case became a sarcastic Internet meme countering the accuser’s testimony during the Justice Kavanaugh hearing).
This “better yesterday” approach to race actually retards social development. When the buddies meet, it is the black who anachronistically winces at the white saying “colored man.” At one time, before black-power consciousness, this was the conventional term, but it’s used here to stoke PC “improvement.” Green Book’s pandering begins from this first scene, with Don sitting on an African throne. It is an Obama fantasy image: He is suave, erudite, unlike other American blacks due to his elegance, refinement, and intellectual and cultural prestige. On the other hand, Tony’s fantasy image is that of the white social savior, the brave working-class Italian who overcomes his racism to protect, guide, and defend the weak, needy black man. Neither performer is good at these roles; both are too actorly. Mortensen packed on obvious weight for a “deze-dems-doze” Raging Bull impersonation, and Ali’s super-affected imperiousness recalls Roscoe Lee Browne without the natural sophistication.
Roscoe Lee Browne (The Liberation of L.B. Jones, Two Trains Running) never played a role as self-pitying as Ali’s Don, who gripes, “If I ain’t black enough, if I ain’t white enough, if I ain’t man enough then tell me, Tony, what am I?” (Those sudden “ain’ts” are like the contractions and laid-on-thick Southern accent Obama used when patronizing the NAACP.) Ali is still channeling his down-low role in Moonlight. Mortensen does better when Tony rescues Don from a sexual-indecency arrest and explains, “I been workin’ nightclubs in New York City my whole life. I know it’s a complicated world.” This sympathetic line is what’s called “code switching.” Hollywood shifts its tactics when talking down to either race or sex subjects but is always most fake when it comes to race. Tony’s defensive “I don’t make the rules down here” is supposedly answered by Don’s white-shaming “Who does?”
Director Peter Farrelly showed a better understanding of race relations in the undomesticated comedies he made with his brother Bobby, especially Me, Myself & Irene, with its three raucous, genius black siblings in one interracial “family.” The sappiness of Green Book is beneath Farrelly’s non-PC ingenuity and the honest grasp of ethnic interplay seen in films by Charles Stone III (Mr. 3000) and Raymond De Felitta (Two Family House, Rob the Mob). America’s mysterious, recalcitrant race differences were unexpectedly resolved by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman’s equal-weight, complementary compulsions in The Bucket List, an underrated buddy movie that showed a lot about brotherhood and male egotism without making it obvious. Everything in Green Book is obvious because it is dishonest.