In 1989 the puerile “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, cementing Hollywood’s preference for films depicting black folks as gentle, subservient second-class citizens longing for the approval of their moneyed betters. Spike Lee’s towering masterwork “Do the Right Thing” was famously snubbed that very same year, presumably because it made the rich white people who vote on these things extremely uncomfortable.
It’s safe to assume stuff’s gonna play out the same way this Oscar season, as Lee’s urgent, extraordinary “BlackKklansman” is already being dismissed in the year-end derby by so-called pundits in favor of “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s sloppy, toothless period-piece apologia that paints a big smiley face on bigotry, circa 1962. In the ignoble tradition of “Crash,” “The Blind Side” and “The Help,” here’s a movie that purports to explore racism in America while coddling fragile white viewers at the expense of its characters of color. I honestly can’t believe they’re still making these things.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a rambunctious, real-life mob-adjacent character who worked as a bouncer and then as a maître d' at the Copacabana before filling out his very busy retirement on camera with bit parts like Frankie the Wop in “GoodFellas” and Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. on “The Sopranos.” For a brief spell in the early 1960s Tony was a chauffeur for pianist Don Shirley (played here by elegant, “Moonlight” Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) on an ill-advised concert tour through the Jim Crow South.
Tony Lip’s kid Nick penned the screenplay (along with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly) and “Green Book” is very much the kind of movie someone writes about their dad. Tony’s a big trash-talking galoot but deep down he’s all heart, and the script is careful enough to let him drop every possible permutation of the Italian word for eggplant while still saving the actual n-word for the bad guys. (The screenwriters couldn’t keep Viggo from saying it on the press tour.) Tony’s the kind of fella who afterward trashes the glasses of lemonade his wife offered to two black deliverymen because he can’t stomach drinking out of the same cup as coloreds, but at least Viggo looks really sad while he’s doing it?
Shirley is a character type we seldom see. He’s a brilliant performer terrible at small talk, who quietly retires to his hotel room after every gig, where he downs a bottle of Cutty Sark and ruminates on disappointments beyond this movie’s purview. Ali gives a performance that’s frankly too good for the picture, fulminating with secret shames and regrets, sublimated into a formality of disposition as if strict allegiance to decorum might somehow force this horrible country to make sense. (Meanwhile Shirley’s homosexuality is glossed over so quickly it makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” look like “Cruising.”)
But that’s all shaken up by bozo Tony, with his wild gesticulations and open-mouthed chewing teaching this highfalutin muckity-muck a thing or two about real people. Shirley practically lives in a castle above Carnegie Hall, with Indian servants and African decorations. Luckily he’s got this gavone from the Bronx to teach him life lessons. “Green Book” plays like a bizarre Trumpist’s anti-Obama empowerment fantasy, in which a proudly ignorant white prole is constantly humiliating an erudite, sophisticated black man and showing him how the world really works.
Tony not only has an elongated bit in which he introduces Shirley to the wonders of Chubby Checker, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin — “I know more about your people than you do!” Tony exclaims — but he also teaches the black guy how to eat fried chicken in a scene I can’t believe is actually in a movie released in 2018.
It’s a weird, lumpy film constantly undercutting any agency Ali’s character might ever possess so the noble semi-racist guy can ride in to his rescue. (Because sometimes all a situation needs is a white guy with a gun.) Meanwhile Mortensen’s cartoonish knuckle-biting and arm-waving is the kind of goombah burlesque that can probably be seen from space. I spent the whole movie waiting for some old lady to open a window and shout, "Anthony! It’s Prince Spaghetti Day!"
I sat there alone at the screening, another middle-aged white guy surrounded by Boston’s invited culture commentariat who roared throughout and applauded at the end, without a dark-complexioned face in the room. I wondered again why we white audiences still seem to need these movies so badly, aching to be reassured that there might be racism in the world but we’re still OK.
Afterward my dear friend, the great film critic Odie Henderson texted me from New York in the same depressing, matter-of-fact tone with which he predicted the 2016 election: “Man, that s---’s gonna win Best Picture.” You heard it here first.