Green Book is an old-fashioned tale of friendship too polite for its own good
A niche term that has popped up in corners of the online film community this year is the phrase nicecore, which describes a specialized type of polite film in which its main aim is to give you that warm, fuzzy feeling of sentimentality that movies like Driving Miss Daisy popularized. Nicecore is by design a subgenre with good intentions, eager to impart humanistic (if often a bit corny and obvious) life lessons that seem even more vital in our often combative, divided times. None of these films are concerned with being groundbreaking or even all that memorable; they just want to charm you for a few hours. If there’s any movie to fit the term this year, Green Book might take the cake.
Written and directed by longtime studio comedy filmmaker Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary), Green Book recounts the story of the “true friendship” between Italian bouncer and family man Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings franchise) and genius black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight). Shirley hires Lip to be his driver for a concert tour through the Deep South, relying on the “Green Book”, a guide to the establishments safe for people of color to stay in, to guide their way. The film follows the development of the relationship between the two men and how they overcome their differences to forge a friendship that would last a lifetime. See? Nicecore.
Don’t be fooled, this is a movie that desperately depends on stereotypes to survive, primarily when it comes Mortensen’s portrayal of Lip. The cinematic Lip has to be the most trope-ridden portrayal of the Italian-American male since the Goodfellas boom, complete with an ayfuggedaboutit accent, an affinity for food, and a violent temper softened only by his dedication to his adoring wife (Linda Cardellini, Freaks and Geeks) and children. Of course, Farrelly lays the groundwork for Lip’s casual racism early on, portraying Lip using racial slurs and even throwing away drinking glasses used by a pair of black painters working in his home. From the first moments we spend with Lip, we know he is designed to change quickly and obviously, so the message of acceptance has been drilled deep into the audience’s brain by the time the film is over. Lip’s quick acceptance and defense of Shirley feels too easy and too forgiving of his prejudices, but the merits of nicecore again dictate that we cannot explore too deeply in this department. While the character is an often egregious caricature, he is given some humanity by Mortensen, who elevates the material at times into a performance that is occasionally genuinely sweet and charming.
Shirley, on the other hand, while steeped in some rote ideas of what it means to be a “black genius”, is a character made fascinating by a layered performance from the always stellar Ali. The character is everything Lip is not: articulate, sophisticated, and frequently fussy. The humor of the film comes from the tension between Lip’s free-spirited, mean streets attitude and the prim and proper nature of Shirley, which is driven home by Ali’s reliably deadpan delivery. The real meat of the performance, however, comes when Ali finds he can bring out his best emotional tools through the dichotomy of Shirley’s identity: a black man whose abilities have placed him in the company of America’s white elite, but alienate him from other people of color and do little to protect him from prejudice and oppression. Ali’s performance is constantly dotted with a loneliness behind his eyes that drives home the alienating feeling of being an outsider in a world already populated with them. It’s a take on the tortured genius trope given nuance by a deeply human spin from one of the finest actors working today.
While Ali and Mortensen have an undeniable chemistry that elevates the material, this is still a film mired in forced, Hallmark-style sentimentality and tired explorations of racism and stereotyping, not to mention unremarkable work behind the camera from Farrelly. It has everything you would expect from a film designed to reach an older, white audience; one scene even features the pair exploring their differences through the sharing of a bucket of fried chicken, as if this film’s racial lessons weren’t obvious enough. Even with the central premise behind the film’s road trip structure, going from one Green Book approved dive to the next, there’s no real sense of the systemic issues that have given rise to this oppressive system of travel. It’s the sort of film that ultimately doesn’t offer anything thoughtful or new in exploring the dynamics of race in America, opting instead for safe civility. As a result, we see some of the potential negatives of the aforementioned nicecore mentality. By tackling racism with board strokes, we lose any sense of real accountability for Lip or any other character’s prejudices. Despite the exploration of race forming the backbone of the film, it finds better drama in the class difference between Lip and Shirley, often leaving its own message muddled in a sea of other ideas. It doesn’t help that Farrelly, traditionally more of a comedic director, stacks the drama with a pacing better accustomed for jokes than for hard-hitting moments. Any time any semblance of truth is uncovered, it’s bogged down by an-out-of-place moment of humor or a contrasting dramatic element.
Green Book is a well-intentioned film let down by a somewhat toothless, hokey exploration of racial and class tension in 1960s America. While it’s often given legs by charming performances from two prolific actors, it can’t escape its identity as a film plucked from a less defined era of cinema, where this sort of surface-level drama was prime Oscar bait. Nicecore has a solid entry, but not one that will prove the trend is worthy of its reputation for finding powerful optimism in realism.