Easy rider: Academy rewards safe biopic ‘Green Book’ with Best Picture

Newly crowned Academy Award winner for Best Picture “Green Book” is like clanging a cowbell at the end of Shoshtakovich’s seventh.

Everyone who doesn’t understand what that means believes it’s perfect.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Green Book,” a well-acted and competently made film, yet completely ordinary by comparison to other features in the Academy’s Best Picture category.

It’s just that a film like Peter Farrelly’s enjoyably bland biopic is an Oscar favorite in the same way that the clanging of a bell rings false in a classic operetta.

Something’s just not right.

At work here is the Academy’s often problematic preferential balloting system, in which voters rank all nominees for Best Picture.

If no movie earns over 50 percent of the vote, the lowest ranked film is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed until a film passes the halfway point.

It’s in this sense that the Best Picture race is film’s equivalent to the Electoral College.

“Green Book” is self-described as being “inspired by” the real-life friendship of Don Shirley, a famous African-American pianist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a working class bouncer hired by Shirley to serve as driver/bodyguard for a concert tour of the American South during the 1960s.

Featuring now two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Shirley and Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen as Vallelonga, “Green Book” has received acclaim from critics and average viewers alike.

The film’s Best Picture win isn’t isn’t completely without merit. Mortensen and Ali elevate a middling script with brilliant, dynamic chemistry and deliver knockout scene after knockout scene over the course of a two-hour dramedy.

Mortensen melts into the “Tony Lip” persona, gaining upwards of 40 pounds while slovenly eating his way both figuratively and literally through scenes. Making a close minded, blue collar brute sympathetic and not stupid requires finesse and Mortensen delivers a memorable, heartwarming performance.

Despite a secondary part in the film, Ali’s turn as Shirley is more than equal to Mortensen’s Vallelonga, a nuanced effort that masks Shirley’s inner loneliness made all too clear by a revealing twist midway through the film.

The pair have a dynamic on-screen chemistry that elevates both performances and enhances the entire film as a whole beyond standard biopic fodder when either character is alone on screen.

It’s easy to forget, however, given how charming Mortensen and Ali are in their roles that “Green Book” lacks true emotional stakes because racism is sugarcoated in the film to such a degree where the actions of discriminatory Caucasians come across as simply unfortunate rather than harrowing or vigorous.

Hatred and bigotry are easily examined at a distance, none more so than the tepid response given in the script.

The biggest flaw of an otherwise genuinely enjoyable film, “Green Book” comes across as a novice’s guide to America’s racial divide during the Civil Rights Era, teaching audiences that the titular “Green Book” was essentially an almanac of businesses safe for African-Americans to use while traveling and explaining racism in an almost self-congratulatory, “aren’t we glad Americans aren’t that divided anymore” manner.

In a year where a Marvel film probes racial identity in a modern context with “Black Panther” and Spike Lee frames “BlacKkKlansman” with the violence of last year’s Charlottesville race riot, this oversimplification sticks out like a sore thumb even more.

Apparently none of that matters.
In the afterglow of a “Green Book” victory, I’m reminded of a response I received to my initial review of the film, one that’s stuck with me throughout awards season.
“I didn’t go to see a Ken Burns documentary,” one reader told me of “Green Book.”

What mattered is how “Green Book” made her feel, and in that sense, Farrelly’s film is a resounding success.
It’s nearly impossible to not leave the theater smiling (and perhaps a little misty-eyed) following a showing of “Green Book.”

Stellar performances from Ali and Mortensen bear that out.

And yet, there are better movies in 2018 than the one that took home top prize Sunday evening.

Truly a great film on a first viewing, “Green Book” simply doesn’t age well, no matter how many times you ring the cowbell.

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