In recent years the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars) has overhauled its membership, and that has completely changed what it means to be an Oscar nominated movie. Three of the past four Best Picture winners are The Shape of Water (a standalone hardcore fantasy movie), Moonlight (a subtle movie about a black, gay man) and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (a wacky and pompous look into what it means to be someone who works in the movie industry). Ten years ago these three movies probably wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture, let alone win it. That makes one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners all the weirder. Green Book is absolutely the type of movie Academy voters would have fallen head over heels for ten years ago. It’s a feel good movie filled with great performances that seems to carry a big message with it. This movie’s message of exploring racial tensions is going to cause problems for some people though. As so many movies before, the exploration of these tensions comes almost completely from a white perspective.
Green Book tells the real life story of Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer working for the New York City mob and portrayed by Viggo Mortsensen, as he is hired by Don Shirley, an acclaimed black jazz musician portrayed by Mahershala Ali in the movie. Tony and Shirley are trying to complete a nationwide tour that brings them deeper and deeper into the Jim Crow-era South where numerous problems emerge for Shirley. The beating heart of this movie is the odd couple relationship of Tony and Shirley. Tony is the dim-witted, comedic center of the movie while Shirley brings out the quiet, philosophical aspects of the movie that make you think of the current American climate of today despite this being a movie set in the 1960s. Mahershala Ali is a bit of perfect casting to bring the best of Shirley to the screen. His commanding presence adds so much and when Shirley’s composure does crack at times, Ali is naturally able to handle the transition. The real highlight though is Mortensen’s transformation into Tony. Mortensen is one of the very few actors who are able to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Day-Lewis (the really picky actor that puts all of his effort into a complete transformation of his character). The weight gain that he has put on is noticeable and his over-the-top accent is just right for a movie like this where comedy isn’t the goal but is around in spades.
The loud nature of the Tony character also means that most of the exploration of race goes through his character. This makes for a more entertaining movie, but it also means that this movie’s take on race is anything but original. It’s a tired exploration that thinks it’s onto something that hasn’t been brought up numerous times before. To make matters worse Tony makes a lot of decisions on the racial front that come across as Tony just being oblivious to how the world works when the movie clearly wants you to think that Tony is doing a noble thing that he is fully aware of. These are some odd decisions that don’t derail the movie but they do stick out.
As an odd couple on the road movie Green Book works really well thanks to the two lead performances, but as an exploration of race relations the movie needed a lot more work.