Ebony-ivory bonding in the segregated south

Ebony-ivory bonding in the segregated south Mahershala Ali (right) and Viggo Mortensen star in Green Book
Green
 Book(PG)

 

Dull would he be of soul who could fail to warm to the black and white communion of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali)  and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson) in this feelgood road movie. As a treatise on racism, though, it’s hackneyed. Likewise as a buddy-buddy feature, the tropes are overly familiar.

I didn’t admire it as much as the people who say it’s going to sweep the boards at the Oscars. Mortenson has played so many diverse roles in his career so far, it’s almost like a step backwards for him. He plays a ‘type’, an unreconstructed Bronx roughneck with a tongue like sandpaper who’s a pussycat at heart.

The film is basically a dual purpose re-vamp of Driving Miss Daisy. Tony loses his job as a bouncer, replacing it with the task of ferrying a snooty African-American jazz pianist (Shirley) on a concert tour of the Deep South. The book of the title is meant to steer them away from the more virulently anti-black areas but they can’t avoid them all.

In one scene they find themselves in prison, eventually  becoming rescued by the intervention of, wait for it, Robert Kennedy. I’m not saying this didn’t happen – the film is based on fact – but it gives a comic book flavour to the proceedings.

In another scene we discover Shirley is gay. This theme is dropped almost as soon as it’s introduced.

Formula

I don’t want to come down too heavy on a film as well intentioned as this, but the role reversal of previous films of its type is so obvious (this time it’s the white guy who’s the chauffeur, not the black one) is too cute. When you invert a formula it’s still a formula.

The manner in which the snob becomes earthy (hey, he likes Kentucky Fried Chicken!) and the loudmouth becomes sensitive (Shirley helps him write love letters to his wife back in New York) was too Walt Disney for me.

The racism is also handled too predictably. Shirley is informed he can use the stage in one venue but not the toilet. In another one he isn’t allowed to eat in the restaurant. This is horrendous but hardly surprising.

We’ve all heard stories of people like  Sammy Davis having to enter places he played in the 1960s through the back door. It’s better conveyed in a scene where he watches some dirt-poor sharecroppers in a field – because nothing is said.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is the fact that it’s directed by Peter Farrelly, whose previous outings included mainly vulgar comedies like There’s Something About Mary.

Mortenson does a kind of Alan Arkin/Al Pacino take on his character. Ali’s one would have been better essayed by someone like Don Cheadle.  He only seems at home near the end playing in a grubby tavern among a group of rootsy black musicians, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of the film.

Good ***

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