Review: Green Book (2018)

Green Book is a film that immediately sparks the phrase ‘Oscar-bait,’ this concept that some films are created more for award ceremonies than critical appeal; the idea here being that the average moviegoer is more likely to check out a Best Picture nominee than a film that manages to land a high score on Metacritic. The negative quality of this label comes from the general attitude that technical elements can be ignored for more surface-level details – a narrative with ‘social significance’ and recognizable actors giving ‘meaningful’ performances. These films carry a certain air of manipulation, that they care more about what the subject matter can do for them than the other way around.

Yes, Green Book falls neatly into that category. This is a Hollywood take on the concept of an art film. The importance is on the label, the story of a working class white man driving a black musician through the Deep South in the early 1960s – and though they are wildly different people, they learn Important Life Lessons during their journey together. It’s the type of saccharine story about race that will earn nominations over more purposeful and heavy takes on the issue, such as the snubbed If Beale Street Could Talk.

But being Oscar-bait is a conceptual idea; films can rise above that label. For the story it’s choosing to tell, Green Book does fine work. As mentioned, this style of film-making puts emphasis on acting, and it’s much harder to fudge a good performance than it is to force a ‘meaningful’ narrative. Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali are stellar playing against each other, Viggo’s loudmouth Tony in perfect contrast to Ali’s deliberate quiet as Don Shirley.

What pushes this above standard Oscar-bait territory is that it actually does excel in a particular technical category; the editing is surprisingly proficient. There’s nothing boundary-pushing, just a simple emphasis on timing; this film carries a certain comedic tone, and it has that necessary rhythm between shots. Nothing lingers more than it needs to, nor does a shot fade away too quickly – this is a film that earns its two-hour-plus running time by making every moment count.

The story is nice enough, though it naturally feels a bit forced. There are two major themes running throughout, and the one beneath the surface works a whole lot better. There are too many scenes that simply establish Don Shirley’s lack of connection with other black people. One flagrant example finds him standing outside the car after it break down, a field full of black workers staring at him in his fancy suit as a white man chauffeurs him. This element of the narrative is present throughout, so why feature such a deliberate moment?

What works better is when the film hones in on the concept of self-hood. Don Shirley is portrayed as a man lost in his individuality, performing for audiences that otherwise treat him as scum. His unique place in the world puts a barrier between him and others, a lonely man compelled to present that loneliness as an affectation. Tony Vallelonga, on the other hand, is happy to fall into the ways of his community, but he always sees through whatever stereotypes he might fit to see himself as his own being. But where this creates fun moments of conflict between the two, it also carries the heavy baggage of making this a film about a white man teaching a black man to lighten up a little.

Green Book is all-in-all a fine film, one that can’t hide its intentions but carries a high enough quality to make it worthwhile. It certainly has no place in the Best Picture race, and I think the sad fact is that it could have even been a great film if it cut down on some of the surface-level elements that likely earned it that nomination. It could have been great – but it’s still pretty good, which I can say is more than I expected when I went in.

3.5 Stars Out of 5