Thursday 7 February 2019

Play it again, Don: "Green Book"

Last Tuesday morning on the streets of Chicago, the African-American actor and singer Jussie Smollett was targeted in a racist and homophobic attack by two men shouting Make America Great Again slogans; the attackers put a rope around the actor's neck before dousing him in a chemical substance believed to be bleach*. Three days later, the much-nominated, much-Audience Prized Green Book, an easy comedy-drama in which a bigoted white man is nudged towards enlightenment by a noble African-American sitting in the backseat of his car, finally opened in the UK. How might these two facts connect? Well, for the Pollyannas among us, Green Book's arrival might be taken as encouraging proof that the movies remain committed to addressing the great divide evident between Americas; these onlookers would doubtless insist that telling the same story over and over again is a tremendous way of penetrating the planet's thicker skulls, its most shut-off minds. For the Eeyores, who probably wouldn't be caught dead at a 12A-rated crowdpleaser such as this, the film is liable to appear as, at best, a demonstration of how out of touch Hollywood elites are to street-level realities, and at worst, an utterly futile gesture, as effective as trying to stick a Band-Aid over the Grand Canyon. Clearly, there are some horrors a movie like this can't even begin to address; even a more politicised, streetwise item like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman only got there with its final, sickening lurch into the news footage of that car ploughing through the protesters at Charlottesville. That hate crime, and the Smollett attack, are somewhere on Green Book's horizon, but Peter Farrelly's film forever prefers to take the scenic route, the Sunday drive.

It opens at a big band show that both establishes the period setting (New York, the early 60s) and reassures the audience that we're basically here for a good time - a gilded showbusiness anecdote, rather than any grim cautionary tale or warning from history. From this brilliantined backdrop of goombahs and pizza pies, there emerges an odd-couple double act to set alongside this season's Stan & Ollie: a barrelchested, hard-living, to-some-degree prejudiced Italian-American known as "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), the fastidious black concert pianist who appoints Tony as his driver for his two-month tour of the Deep South. Tony will provide the wheels and the fists, whenever this detour into politically and socially entrenched territory demands them; the serene Shirley the culture and wisdom. One new twist finds the camera alighting on the so-called Green Book, a publication assigned to black travellers heading south to ensure safer passage (or "vacation without aggravation" as the cover phrases it). Otherwise, you could plot the route without troubling to see the movie: as one date on the concert tour gives way to another, initial suspicion gives way to outright tetchiness, then something like mutual respect. There is next to nothing to identify Green Book as a movie that urgently needed a 2019 release; the story could have been optioned, written up and put into production at any time in the decades between Driving Miss Daisy (around which point it might still have seemed vaguely fresh) and Moonlight winning the Oscar (the event that may finally have yanked it decisively from development hell).

In its favour, the film retains a certain showbiz savvy: it knows what it's selling - the kind of corny ethnic material a hack comic might have toured in the Sixties - and summons all the energy it can to sell it. (It deserves to be up against Bohemian Rhapsody in a category all the films' own: Most Begrudging Three-Star Reviews.) Two intelligent performers, one given freer rein than the other, keep it from stalling altogether. Mortensen benefits from the fact this script (by Farrelly with Nick Vallelonga, the real-life Tony Lip's son) has been written almost exclusively from the white man's perspective, but he is as committed to this role as he was to his Russian gangster in Eastern Promises and his long-haired refusenik in Captain Fantastic. He gives Tony a rolling, navel-first doorman's walk, and appears to have spent months of pre-production learning how to bark dialogue with a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Still, it's a dramatic limitation that the character - the kind of uxorious, loyal, life-loving racist you could take home to your (non-black) parents - never seems all that committed to his own prejudices; redeeming an actual bigot would take work, and Green Book is too much the cruise for that. Farrelly places Tony's most brusquely shocking act (binning the glasses from which black workmen have sipped) upfront, but thereafter his racism strikes us as lightly worn, easily cast off, no more than skin deep. Set Tony Lip against, say, Andy Sipowicz in the first season(s) of NYPD Blue - the gold-standard for convertible pop-culture bigots - and he merely seems a bit rough-edged; set him, as Farrelly very slyly does, against the stagehand who refers to Shirley as a "c**n", or the socialite who insists the pianist use a separate, outside bathroom, and he increasingly resembles a secular saint. (The mismessaging may, perhaps, lead us towards something: the film suggests white guys can get by just fine if they continually surround themselves with individuals more racist than they are themselves.)

Behind Mortensen - as the film more often than not positions him, literally and figuratively - Ali brings his recognisable precision of word and gesture to bear upon the pianist role, although the character of Don Shirley looks very much like someone taken prisoner by this story, obliged to lift the white man out of the gutter and bash out regular refrains of "Happy Talk" to jolly everybody else along while he's doing it. He has next to no life of his own: Farrelly takes one cursory look at the pianist's complex, troubled sexuality, then bolts fearfully in any other direction, no homo. And it hardly helps Ali's cause that he's front and centre in the movie's most shameless scene, a tearful confrontation with his driver (amid a rainstorm!) which lacks but one element: a flashing caption bearing the words "OSCAR CLIP" or "NOMINATE THIS!" They have, of course, ensuring the reactions have been as predictable as the initial actions: this always was a picture set into motion to get itself into the awards shake-up rather than reveal some gleaming, harsh or otherwise essential truth to us. The result is the kind of mixed-bag proposition audiences have generally gravitated towards because it makes them feel better about themselves and their country: escapism rather than engagement, in other words, offering a handful of titters and chuckles via which one might drown out real-world screams and cries for help, and - for at least a couple of hours - forget about such matters as the Smollett attack entirely. Those crowds will surely be pleased, but complacent barely seems the appropriate word for it.

*Update: two weeks after this review was posted, Smollett was arrested and charged with filing a false police report, suggesting the attack had been set up. Factor this in as you will, and try not to go too crazy considering the ways of this world.

Green Book is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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