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Saturday, February 2, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Green Book (2018)

Close your eyes and try to imagine the stereotypical Oscar bait. Maybe you see a sweeping historical story, about war or royalty. Maybe you see a punishing drama about tragedy or human struggle. Or, maybe, you see a deeply middlebrow drama full of broad performances that puts a deeply clumsy spin on American life in the not-so-distant past. You know the kind of movie I'm talking about. Folksy flicks like “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Forrest Gump.” You'd think, in our hyper-woke times, prestige flicks like this would be totally discredited. Yet Joe Movie-Goer still loves them and Academy voters are apparently included in that number, resulting in garbage like “The Help” or “The Blind Side” grabbing both nominations and awards. 2018's rendition of this old tune is “Green Book,” a movie that scored five Oscar nominations despite the fact I have yet to find an actual movie fan who likes it.

The film was written by “Psycho Cop Returns” star and Islamophobe Nick Vallelonga, about his father, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga. In the early 1960s, Tony is fired from his job at a night club following an altercation. In need of work, he interviews to be a driver for a “doctor.” That doctor turns out to be Don Shirley, a classical jazz pianist and a black man. Shirley is embarking on a tour of concert venues in the Deep South. Despite being a racist himself, and it meaning several months away from his family, Tony agrees to take the job. On their journey, Tony and Shirley become friends and encounter the struggles of the time.

“Green Book” could not be a more predictable film. When introduced, Don Shirley is depicted as something of a stuffy, stuck-up guy. He speaks in a cultured, slow, specific manner. He regularly dresses in tuxedos. He uses large words, likes the quiet, and isn't familiar with pop music. Tony, in contrast, is a big, fat, vulgar Italian. He chows down on pizzas and hot dogs. He gambles, swears, pisses in the woods, and tells meandering anecdotes about his life in the Bronx. It's obvious where this is going. That Tony will teach Shirley to loosen up some, while Shirley will teach Tony to respect the finer things in life. This is most apparent in what most be among 2018's most patronizing cinematic moments, when Tony convinces Shirley to try Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time. No wonder this movie got an A+ CinemaScore.

If “Green Book” was just feel-good twattle about the power of friendship, that would be one thing. Within that utterly pedestrian framework, the film tries to tell a story about racism in 1960s America. It, of course, does this from the perspective of a racist white guy. Was the story of a black, gay man being among the most respected pianist of his time not cinematic enough for you, Peter Farrelly? Because Vallelonga is the movie's hero. He's the one who protects Shirley from the cops when his homosexuality is uncovered. He's the one who stands up to racist highway patrolmen, drunken good ol' boys, or the business owners of the time insisting on segregating Shirley. When Don takes a stand for himself on Christmas Eve, when a club he's playing at won't let him eat there, it's because Tony has taught him to be brave. (This is immediately followed by a sequence where they eat at a black restaurant, Shirley performing in the rowdy jazz band. Cause, you see, he's learned to appreciate the common folks.) Instead of depicting the unique challenges in Shirley's own life, “Green Book” celebrates Vallelonga for moving on from his racism, for learning not to be a piece of shit.

It's also the kind of self-satisfied Oscar bait that nakedly strives for meaningful emotion in the most maudlin way possible. The film makes sure to give its principal actors big, emotional moments just to themselves. Such as when Tony yells at Shirley for talking down to him or when Shirley explains to Tony how he's an outcast everywhere he goes. The soundtrack swells with big, powerful strings, signaling to the audience that these are important moments. There are several moments like that, such as when Don helps Tony write more romantic letters home to his wife. Or, at the very end, when the pianist is sitting alone in his home on Christmas Eve. It's a movie that doesn't trust its audience to actually feel anything, so it has to hammer home its emotional points in the broadest, biggest ways possible.

Yet, despite all this, some of the baffling praise “Green Book” has received isn't totally misplaced. Mahershala Ali is good as Don Shirley. He's a tightly wound man, with secrets of his own and hidden pain. Ali shows all of this without any showy overacting or blown-up physicality. It's the kind of restraint and command of emotional manners that won Ali his first Oscar and may win him another. It's a technique Viggo Mortensen probably should've try. As Tony, Mortensen inhabits every Italian-American stereotype you can think of. (Yes, he does the hand thing.) The New Yawk accent he puts on is exaggerated and ridiculous. It's an utterly grotesque performance, from an actor who is usually much better than this. Mortensen creates, not a character, but a caricature. But, I'll say this much, the cartoonish delivery of clunky comedic lines did make me laugh once or twice.

People like movies like “Green Book” – which, by the way, barely features the roadguide it takes its title from – because they make them feel better about themselves. “Hey, if this racist slob can learn to treat a person of another race like an actual human being, so can I.” And, whatever, there's an obvious market in talking down to the “I can't be racist, I have a black friend!” audience. But why is deeply middlebrow nonsense like this reaping in the awards and picking up nominations? In a time when America is more divided by ideology than ever before, movies that make racist uncles feel warm and fuzzy should not get a chance at the highest honor in Hollywood. [4/10]

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