Thursday, February 14, 2019

Green Book (Peter Farrelly)

Odd couple

A Farrelly movie up for the Oscars?  

Green Book is Peter Farrelly going at it solo (his brother Bob didn't join in for personal reasons) doing a period picture (for the first time) that has since earned serious Oscar talk (for the first time). Follows the debatably true story of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) doing a concert tour of the Midwest and segregated Deep South, hires as chauffeur and bodyguard one Tony Lip Vallelonga (Viggo Morensen) army veteran and nightclub bouncer, presently unemployed.

You've been here before: The Odd Couple; The Defiant Ones; Driving Miss Daisy--basically two people of different races temperament social positions, forced to spend time with each other in this case a car driving through rural America. This variation has two men, the white a lower-class slob the black an upper-class snob, white man behind steering wheel. They go through stuff they eat (a lot) they quarrel they share a couple of laughs. 

So how far does Farrelly get with the real-life drama? Pretty far, actually. Helps that Mortensen gets plenty of mileage from a broad Brooklyn accent ("You shouldna punched out da foreman." "Well he shouldna woke me up.")--for anyone who watches Scorsese films and Joe Pesci comedies, perfectly familiar territory from which to launch a long journey. He's a bullshit artist as he readily admits, to which Don asks: "You're proud of that?" "It got me dis job."

Ali's Don Shirley (you almost want to say in the back of your mind 'shirty') functions as effective foil to Mortensen's loud gregarious bluecollar joe, flinching at an offered piece of fried chicken ("I told you not to get grease on my blanket." "Oooo I'm gonna get grease on my blanket!"), ordering Tony to back up the car to pick up discarded rubbish. It's in the not-always-subtle details that the movie lives--Tony an unspoken racist (he tosses a drinking glass used by a black worker in his apartment), Don an understated elitist (when they first meet--in Don's luxurious apartments above Carnegie Hall--Tony slouches on a couch while Don ascends to a throne) and how--predictably but with some spin on old tropes--the two wear down each other's rough edges smooth.

If Tony is the movie's comic engine (with Don providing good accompaniment) Don's narrative provides some of the dramatic heft, and arguably some of what we see that we haven't seen before involves Don's alienated sense of self--how his troubled relations with his brother distances him from his family, how his relative wealth and education distances him from much of the black community. He feels the need to reach out but on his terms, hence the concert tour.

How true is that portrait? The Shirley family denies this characterization of Don's relationship with his family and with Tony. Farrelly concedes the former, though audio recordings from Don himself (used in Josef Astor's documentary Lost Bohemia, abut the artists living above the Hall) tend to support the latter assertion.

Putting all that aside (past a certain point accusations of historical distortion as Shakespeare might agree seem academic) does the movie--in itself on its own terms--work? The Farrelly brothers aren't known for their memorable camerawork or subdued storytelling but what they are known for is this gift for outrage comedy that can be put to remarkably deft use can allow them license to say things most filmmakers would be condemned for saying (in the case of There's Something About Mary, Kingpin (my favorite of their work), and Me, Myself, and Irene, how physical and mental disabilities don't mark afflicted folk as separate from the rest of the world). 

Maybe my biggest problem with Green Book is that the Farrellys, like this movie's Don, scored their biggest successes (artistic if not commercial) on their terms, with grossout humor that celebrates the grotesque and the different--cut through the bullshit, get straight to the point. This--Peter without his brother Bob--is more like standard-issue Oscar bait, familiar mainstream fare meant to educate the already enlightened on what they already know about racism. The latter half of the picture is considerably more sombre, some of the lively electricity that informs earlier scenes channeled to a less jagged hum of indignation--Don has learned to appreciate his own community's culture while Tony has decided to stand up against all the rampant discrimination: hooray and applause. 

Come to think of it where else was this storyline supposed to go? Come to think further the Farrellys usually struggle with their endings; you remember their work more for isolated moments than for well-structured storylines (no scene of Tony and Don sharing a hotel bed, Tony farting into his blanket then smothering Don with the reeking sheet, alas).

Does this movie deserve an Oscar nomination? I suppose--it's middlebrow enough, wants to please everyone badly enough. But I like to think that for a while there--particularly during the picture's first half--it was something a little more: ruder cruder less artistic with the bullshit. 

First published in Businessworld 2.8.19


Montag said...

On my first viewing, I made too much of the "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Defiant Ones" and the similarities with buddy pictures and a much too simple reconciliation of the races...

But then something reminded me of Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks" and I immediately remembered Maynard Eziashi in "Mister Johnson" and the colonized person's attempt to become a member of the ruling elite.

Totally different point of view; I went to see the film again, and the isolation of Don Shirley's character from the whites and from his own people was clear and frightening.

Noel Vera said...

I thought his isolation was his most interesting element. It was also probably fabricated. O well.