Remember Shakespeare in Love? The English Patient? The King’s Speech? Why not? All of these films won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Why do we keep forgetting about these movies that are supposedly the top of the line? It’s simple: safety.
The Academy was starting to come out of the cliché of putting generic dramas that everyone was making fun of them for promoting. Between last year’s The Shape of Water, Moonlight, and Birdman, the Academy was choosing risky, unconventional, progressive films that were pushing the envelope for artistic expression and what we saw as groundbreaking cinema. With Green Book, the Academy has taken as many steps backward as they have forward in the past few years. Before I get to the exploration of the impact of Green Book winning Best Picture, I’ll talk about the movie itself first.
I didn’t get to see Green Book when it was making its original theatrical run. Amidst its release, I heard every possible complaint in the book about the film’s message. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali lead this dated romp about Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, an Italian bouncer (Mortensen) who is hired by Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American piano player, who (for some undisclosed reason) is taking a tour in the deep south in the height of the segregation era. So begins a long adventure of driving, bickering, eating, and Viggo Mortensen in his underwear.
Speaking of Mortensen, he is blatantly phoning it in. Despite putting on 40-50 pounds to portray Vallelonga, Mortensen only displays energy in his acting when he can shove food in his mouth or punch someone in the face. You can argue how well he embodies the accent and physicality of Vallelonga all you want, but Vallelonga must be one brick-walled son of a gun. Ali manages to get away with a snobby, monotonous performance, with the classic outburst between the two of them in the third act giving the Academy something to show from the film after they read off their names. Interestingly enough, they used some of the bland clips of the two of them driving and bickering as their Oscar clips instead. The supporting cast puts much more effort into portraying the Deep South in this period, with two Louisville hillbillies in a dusty bar providing the only conflict in the film besides odd-couple banter. Thanks for that great representation for Louisville, Farrelly.
Mahershala Ali in Green Book, courtesy of Universal Pictures
The movie is only really entertaining when it takes a break from the plot to just have nice jazz music. Peter Farrelly brings nothing to the table in terms of direction, and the only stylistic choice is a rip-off of the Indiana Jones map motif to show where our characters are at the start of each scene.
There’s really not much else to say about the quality or the craft, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty controversy. People who praise this movie simply praise it for being a digestible movie about racism and race relations. However, being digestible is different from playing it safe, and this movie is merely playing it safe and ticking all of the boxes. Both of the main characters start out hating each other, because one is closedminded and racist, and the other is a stuck up rich guy who doesn’t want any lip from Tony ‘Lip’. Tony teaches Shirley the wonderful appeal of fried chicken, and Shirley teaches Tony how to write sappy love letters to his wife. Tony believes he’s lived a harder life than Shirley as a working-class citizen and calls himself ‘blacker’ as a result. This leads to an argument about Shirley not fitting in anywhere in the race climate because he’s a black man that’s managed to find wealth and prosperity, and therefore is all alone in the world, even though he has a manservant and plays in a jazz trio with two guys that seem to respect him. There’s little motivation or substance behind any character’s actions, and if there is, it’s probably racism because racism is bad. But we all know that, so what’s the point?
Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, courtesy of Universal Pictures
The last thing this movie tries to do to make you care is creating a third-act conflict about Tony making it home for Christmas, attempting to shove a seasonal label on this bland thing to make it eligible for annual re-watches, because now it’s a Christmas movie. The movie ends on something meant to deliver catharsis without understanding that catharsis requires a longing for an outcome. Tony’s family inviting Shirley to eat with them isn’t a satisfying outcome, because there’s no reason to want that to happen other than to make you smile because these Italian caricatures aren’t being racist like everyone else in this movie’s world.
Like The Greatest Showman before it, I refuse to believe any of this movie is true because it all feels so conventional, cliché, and straightforward. The fact that this was nominated for so many awards just shows how rigged the awards system is, and how little Academy voters care about actually finding and watching good movies on their own time.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s get into some analysis. While I’m not the best at predicting the future (evidence coming from me only predicting 13 of the 24 Academy categories correctly. But, it’s my first time, and there were some giant heel-turns, so cut me some slack.), but I’ll try to break down what’s happening here. Why do we remember Best Picture winners like The Silence of the Lambs, The Return of the King or No Country for Old Men. If I asked a random person on the street, they’d know at least one of those movies. They might not even remember that any of them won Best Picture, but they’d at least be familiar with what the movies are. Those three films are risky, defining or subverting a genre, carrying iconography and gravitas. The only scene in Green Book that provokes any thought of the filmmaker’s decision or what’s happening on screen is five minutes into the movie when Tony ‘Lip’ tosses three cups in the garbage can because his wife let black men who were working on his apartment drink out of them. The only reason anyone that isn’t already invested in this stuff will remember Green Book won Best Picture, is that the studio will have it printed in bold on all of the DVDs they’ll be shipping out in the next few years.
I hope the Academy will be putting risky, challenging films at the forefront again. Their attempts to boost ratings as much as possible were likely a significant reason for Green Book winning, Queen performing, and self-aware humor about all of the terrible decisions they’ve made up until this point. Let’s just hope we can at least get some good jokes out of this mess in the next few years while the Academy tries to make up for the mess that they’ve made, just when they had gotten on a hot streak.
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