A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
The downside to not being on top of my review-writing means I lose a lot of the details and specifics about what I like or don’t like about a movie. The upside is, in a case like this, I’ve seen more of the Best Picture nominees and can now make better comparisons and personal insights.
Coming out of the theater, Green Book handily took the top place as my favorite film of the year. I do acknowledge it can be a bit problematic, for several reasons, including the piece of trash director and issues with Viggo Mortensen’s character (more on that in a bit). That may diminish the allure of the film for you, but I was enthralled from start to finish.
We are first introduced to Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) as a bouncer in the Copacabana. Instantly references start flooding my mind of old mafia films, then as we transition more to Tony’s home and family, memories of my upbringing with Italian American food and large groups of people with shouting to be heard above everyone else come rushing in. And of course Mortensen plays the character with aplomb, as his character demands.
Once Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is introduced, the movie gets even better. The two characters could not be more different, but their friendship forms slowly over the course of their road trip together as Shirely — an African American classical pianist — tours the deep south with Vallelonga as his muscle, should any problems arise.
This would be a good moment to mention the other problematic aspect of the film I mentioned earlier, which is the “white savior narrative”. For the most part, I think the film did the best it could and the screenwriter, Nick Vallelonga (the main character’s real life son), defended the movie relying on his father’s side of the story seems reasonable to me. It doesn’t discount including more of the black perspective — case in point, the Green Book that the movie takes its name from is barely involved in the film; an oversight at least, I’d say.
What bothered me the most is the end of the film (spoilers, for a predictable ending, especially with the white savior caveat), is that I don’t think Tony Vallelonga really demonstrates how/if he has changed. At the beginning of the film he dislikes black people so much, he wants to throw away glasses that have touched their lips; by the end he welcomes Shirley into his home for Christmas dinner. But just before that, he does what Shirely accuses him of earlier in the film — Vallelonga is only standing up for Shirley because it is in his, monetary, interest to do so. Mortensen and Ali 100% sell the development of their relationship, and Vallelonga inviting him to dinner at the end is not a surprise. As the credits mention, they were friends for life after that and stayed in touch until their respective deaths. What doesn’t come through is Vallelonga doing all he does out of the kindness of his heart for Shirley. He clearly likes him by the end, but I think Tony is still looking out for himself and his family first and foremost.
Going back even further, I mentioned the upside of falling behind on my reviews is that I now have insight into more of the nominees. When I saw Green Book, it was my favorite film of the Oscar year. It’s still up there, despite/in spite of the problems it has, and it may manage to walk away with some of the Academy Awards. But more on that in my predictions post later this week, and more on my new favorite film of the year, Roma, when that review hits.
5 out of 5