At the start of Green Book, a racist Italian-American goombah who refers to black people as “eggplants” throws away two drinking glasses because people of color drank out of them. Minutes before the credits roll he’ll be hugging a black man on Christmas as the snow flies. Oh, spoiler alert, I should have said, in case you didn’t see this coming. If so, you might be the kind of person who couldn’t spell “pablum” if I spotted you the “ablum.” Or someone who has never wandered into the multiplex to take in a certified Oscar™-brand feel-good holiday movie.
Widely regarded as one of the more embarrassing Best Picture choices in Academy Awards history, Driving Miss Daisy has been reconfigured for 2018 tastes: Green Book is a leading contender to win Best Picture next winter despite being even more trite, didactic, corny, and obvious than its 1989 isotope. Co-written and directed in oleaginous style by Peter Farrelly (yes, the Dumb and Dumber auteur), the movie combines Hallmark Channel-style humor with a homily about racial tolerance carefully designed to appeal to awards-show voters, to whom no message movie can be too blunt as long as it is sending one of the five or so messages of which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences never tires (boo racism, yay showbiz).
The critical twist this time is that in this movie, “inspired by a true story,” the driver is a low-income, low-status white person and the boss is a wealthy black person. Mahershala Ali (who won an Oscar for a slightly better message movie, Moonlight) plays the concert pianist Don Shirley, who created a style merging elements of classical and popular music. Before embarking on a tour of the segregated Deep South in 1962, he hires as his driver a two-fisted Italian-American bouncer named Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who pounds faces as vigorously as Don hits the piano keys.
Both men existed (and both died in 2013), but Shirley is a fairly obscure musician about whom little has been written. So Farrelly and two other writers seize the opportunity to make him a mythic figure, straining so hard to shatter stereotypes that they make Shirley a caricature of a different kind. Don dresses in impeccable suits with ascots and has never had fried chicken or listened to Chubby Checker. He’s so well-connected that when in trouble, he can (somehow) instantly get Bobby Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general, on the phone, even late at night. Do black men get maligned as having imperfect diction? Farrelly and Ali give Shirley formal, mannered speech suggesting a butler in a Noel Coward play. Do black men get stereotyped as uneducated? Then Shirley gets three Ph.Ds! Three Ph.D.s, by the way, is three more than he had in real life; as the New York Times recently reported, Shirley enjoyed being called “Doctor” but did not even attend graduate school. Farrelly’s dialogue mixes anachronisms (no one would say, “Do you foresee any issues in working for a black man?” in 1962) with a dumb guy’s idea of how certified geniuses talk (“the trees have shed their leafy clothing”).
Meanwhile, Don’s driver Tony is an ignorant slob who is forever stuffing his face, can barely write a sentence, and speaks in malapropisms (he calls Russians “krauts”). In other words, this is a movie that wags its finger about prejudice while depicting Italian-Americans as walking meatballs. The point of tolerance, liberals sometimes seem to forget, is not to swing the cannons of derision around and fire broadsides at some other disfavored group. Yet Mortensen’s character is essentially an Italian Stepin Fetchit.
The plot is just a string of teachable moments, and when I say it’s a bit schematic and overdetermined, I mean it amounts to driving through a landscape of neon billboards reading, “WATCH OUT! RACISM!” Five seconds after we cross into the South, in Kentucky, Shirley gets beaten up by three white guys in a bar for no reason. Every time he deals with white Southerners he gets subjected to a different racist indignity (except the last time, when a white cop treats him like a human being and helps with a spare tire, but that’s when Don is on his way out). Witnessing all of this humiliation melts the ice in Tony’s casually racist heart, in accordance with the “How to Win Awards” chapter in the Screenwriting for Hacks manual. (Oh, and out of nowhere a scene is tossed in to remind us that intolerance for homosexuality is wicked also.)
They’ve been making these odd-couple race-reconciliation road movies for some 60 years now, going back (at least) to 1958’s The Defiant Ones, yet somehow the movies are getting less subtle and more on the nose. Green Book is a film that instructs us in the voice of a kindergarten teacher, expecting that we’ll respond like five-year-olds.