You know how sometimes you’re watching a film and you’re like; ‘Wow. They really thought they could do this scene and nobody would notice?’
Green Book is a movie that is nothing but those scenes. I should have been keeping a tally. Interracial odd couple on a road trip across the American south may not be the freshest of prospects but there’s no excuse for it to be carried out in such a hackneyed fashion. It’s like watching the cover band version of a movie, content to play the hits of all those who came before. Except now, it’s 2019 and we’ve been figuring for a while that the hits are just about all played out.
It’s twist on the formula, I guess, is that this time it’s the black guy who is the high status, outta touch one. Mahershala Ali plays concert pianist Don Shirley as preternaturally straight-backed, tight-lipped and frowning. One senses that his movements carry tremendous weight — given the effort involved in enacting them — his ability to slide from gentle smirk to withering gaze through the application of a few muscles is one of the film’s true joys.
Contrast him with Viggo Mortensen’s Frank Vallelonga, the nightclub bouncer hired as driver for his 1962 autumn/winter tour. The man is a cartoon of a New York Italian. Halfway through the script (co-authored by the real man’s son) there’s a discussion about stereotypes, he boldly asserts that he’s fine with folks making assumptions about him — they’re usually right anyways. You’d hope the real man would feel the same way, because if otherwise… Brash, blustering, and unconstrained he totters through the world as a wiggling ball of intent.
Mortensen apparently put on something like 20 kilos for the role, he is altogether unrecognisable from the scraggly mess we saw in 2017’s Captain Fantastic. It’s telling in a way, as the movie wields his body like a weapon. It doesn’t seem to have a clear take on Shirley’s reserve. Everywhere we see him — his home, the stage, the back seat of the car, some racist fuckin country club’s fancy reception — he is alienated from the world. The same world that Frank is able to inhabit so easily, even when blackout drunk and beaten his loose limping still feels in a way constrained.
On one of their stops he is apprehended by the cops during an illicit encounter with another man. In a disappointing and cowardly choice, we do not see the act, instead director Peter Farrely frames the two men naked, handcuffed and on the floor in the background as the police are dealt with. The film seems to think that something is wrong with the man’s body, it cannot be capable of giving him pleasure, and so reinforces that in all its choices. We see Tony in pleasure all the time, this is a film where he folds a pizza in half and eats it like a sandwich, it’s not even commented upon, it’s just like something that this dude does.
‘Yeah, cos he knows, like, how to live.’ The movie paints him as a teacher, not of any specific lifestyle but more of the truth that his companion’s way of living is fundamentally wrong. The minority learns that the reality of ‘living his best life’ involves a fundamental change of his entire way of interacting with the world, the white guy learns to not be racist. It’s hardly a fair cultural exchange. Especially when ‘not racist’ means ‘being comfortable with a black man in your house’ as if that somehow absolves the guy of all the super problematic shit that he’s been saying (and has been getting laughs from the audience) all the way through.
But it’s okay, because it turns out the black man actually likes fried chicken, and the music of Chubby Checker, and he’s far more at home playing jazz in a black owned establishment than he is on any of the rich racists’ fancy ass Steinways. How convenient. Oh, so there’s the plot point early on that Don Shirley’s contract states that he’ll only play on a Steinway piano, and it’s one of Frank’s jobs to ensure that this is adhered to.
In one scene, he turns up at the venue and there’s a piano with literal garbage in it. Like, the film didn’t trust us to get that this was a clearly substandard instrument. They actually had to have a line to say that there’s trash in there, and have a close up insert shot of the, whatever, paper bags, some poor production designer had to arrange on the strings. There’s a bit later on (featured in the trailer) where the characters get out of the car in order to shout in the rain, then — upon realising the scene doesn’t have an end — sorta walk back to the car and get inside.
Oh yes, this is one lazy ass movie. It rolls along at as fast a pace as the characters and doesn’t bother to stop to actually consider what it’s throwing onscreen. Of course when they’re travelling we’re always seeing from the front of the car looking back. Ali’s reactions, his internality are an afterthought in a film that exists to serve the ego of his white deliverer. Oftentimes, they’ll shoot from the dash. Mortensen, with his cocked head and dramatic arms, could almost be orating through the lens.
Film shouldn’t be as in awe of of this character as it is. It shouldn’t be as in awe of itself either. It’s staid, it’s rote, it’s boring. And it thinks that it is enough. It’s not.
This is the sorta film where they actually put the trash inside the piano.
Green Book is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures