Monday, February 25, 2019

'Green Book' is So Not the Best Picture

This is a devastating take-down, man.

From Justin Chang, at the Los Angeles Times, "Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’ is the worst best picture winner since ‘Crash’":

“Green Book” is the worst best picture Oscar winner since “Crash,” and I don’t make the comparison lightly.

Like that 2005 movie, Peter Farrelly’s interracial buddy dramedy is insultingly glib and hucksterish, a self-satisfied crock masquerading as an olive branch. It reduces the long, barbaric and ongoing history of American racism to a problem, a formula, a dramatic equation that can be balanced and solved. “Green Book” is an embarrassment; the film industry’s unquestioning embrace of it is another.

The differences between the two movies are as telling as the similarities. “Crash,” a modern-day screamfest that racked up cross-cultural tensions by the minute, meant to leave you angry and wrung-out. Its Oscar triumph was a genuine shocker; it clearly had its fans, but for many its inferiority was self-evident.

“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful.

In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.

Mortensen and Ali, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, are superb performers with smooth timing and undeniable chemistry. The movie wades into the muck and mire of white supremacy, cracks a few wince-worthy jokes, gasps in horror at a black man’s abuse and humiliation (all while maintaining a safe, tasteful distance from it), then digs up a nugget of uplift to send you home with, a little token of virtue to go with that smile on your face.

There is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult.

I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.

I’ll concede this much to “Green Book’s” admirers: They understandably love this movie’s sturdy craft, its feel-good storytelling and its charmingly synched lead performances. They appreciate its ostensibly hard-hitting portrait of the segregated South (as noted by U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, who presented a montage to the film on Oscar night) and find its plea for mutual understanding both laudable and heartwarming. I know I speak for some of the movie’s detractors when I say I find that plea both dishonest and dispiritingly retrograde, a shopworn ideal of racial reconciliation propped up by a story that unfolds almost entirely from a white protagonist’s incurious perspective.

“Green Book” has been most often compared not to “Crash” but to an older, more genteel best picture winner, 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” another movie that attempted to bridge the racial divide through the story of a driver and his employer in the American South. “Driving Miss Daisy” was adapted from Alfred Uhry’s play; “Green Book” was co-written by Nick Vallelonga (with Brian Currie and Farrelly), drawn from the stories he heard from his father, Tony. The truth of those stories has been called into question by many, including Shirley’s family, which wasn’t consulted during production and which dismissed the movie as “a symphony of lies.”

Historical accuracy is, of course, just one criterion by which to judge a narrative drawn from real events, and a movie could theoretically play fast and loose with the facts and still arrive at a place of compelling emotional truth. Distortions and omissions can be interesting in what they reveal about a filmmaker’s intentions, and “Green Book,” whether you like it or not, does not have a particularly high regard for your intelligence. In its one-sided presentation and its presumptuous filtering of Shirley’s perspective through Vallelonga’s, the movie reeks of bad faith and cluelessly embodies the white-supremacist attitudes it’s ostensibly decrying.

That cluelessness has been well-documented. Earlier this season, Vanity Fair critic K. Austin Collins pointed out the gall of a white filmmaker blithely psychoanalyzing a black man’s alienation from his own blackness (especially when it takes the form of jokes about Aretha Franklin and fried chicken). Vulture’s Mark Harris aptly described “Green Book” as “a but also movie, a both sides movie” that draws a false equivalency between Vallelonga’s vulgar bigotry and Shirley’s emotional aloofness, forcing both characters — not just the racist white dude — to learn something about themselves and each other.

It’s a tactic, Harris noted, whose echoes can even be found in a terrific older movie (and best picture winner) like “In the Heat of the Night,” and it exists mainly to reassure any audience that might be uncomfortable with a black man gaining the moral high ground.

You would hope that in 2019 — even in a 1962-set movie — such strategic pandering would be a thing of the past. But in “Green Book,” we should be especially nauseated by how crudely the deck is stacked against Don Shirley from the get-go. A more honest, complex and tough-minded movie might have run the risk of actually becoming Shirley’s story, of letting the much more interesting of these two characters slip into the metaphorical driver’s seat. (The fact that Ali was pushed as a supporting actor to Mortensen’s lead campaign is telling in all the wrong ways.) But there isn’t a single scene that feels authentically like the character’s own, that speaks to Shirley’s experience and no one else’s.

His intelligence and elegant diction is continually Otherized. (Vallelonga’s intellectual inferiority is mocked as well, but the picture’s sympathies couldn’t be more clearly on his side.) The movie makes little attempt to parse or appreciate his musical gifts critically; Shirley’s artistic brilliance, much like his alcoholism or his homosexuality, is deemed interesting only insofar as it changes Vallelonga’s opinion of him...

I didn't see it, and I don't know if I'm interested at all now, after reading this evisceration.

Frankly, 2018 wasn't the best year for cinema: