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Is ‘Green Book’ Woke Enough? Does It Need to Be? (Column)

When “Green Book” premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the response to it was ecstatic. Audiences gave it rapturous ovations and voted it their favorite movie of the festival, and critics swooned. Many of us felt that “Green Book,” directed with grace and crack timing by Peter Farrelly (from a script he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie), was a crowd-pleaser in the best way — a feel-good movie, yes, but one built around a series of honest observations about what it showed you. The dialogue went ping without calling attention to itself (William Goldman, I think, would have approved), and you could use the movie in a master class for acting.

That said, there’s no denying that the tropes that thread through “Green Book” have been around a long time. It’s a buddy movie. And a road movie. And a Hollywood liberal message movie, set in the days of Civil Rights and Jim Crow, in which a white guy and a black guy start off by taking the stuffing out of each other until they gradually get to be friends. “Green Book” has been compared to “Driving Miss Daisy” due to its racial theme (and hired-driver plot), but when I first saw it the movie it reminded me of, in a funny way, was “Rain Man,” another on-the-road two-hander that elevated formula to artistry.

Movies like these aim for your sentimental sweet spot, but they also hit notes of truth, most powerfully in the performances. Just think of Dustin Hoffman’s in “Rain Man.”  It was radical — he played a man who literally couldn’t connect with another human being, and he made that disability genuine and, yes, connective. Hoffman and Tom Cruise found an emotional meeting place so subtle it bordered on the clandestine.

In “Green Book,” the two lead actors have an exploratory and transformative quality that lights up the screen. Mahershala Ali plays the jazz pianist and composer Dr. Don Shirley as an artist-aristocrat of crackling superiority, a man of haughty rigor and elegance who has spent his life trying to hold himself above the muck of American society, and has done a heroic job of it. But the result of that crusade is that he’s an overly rarefied soul, embraced in public but isolated. He’s a purist who may be too pure for his own good (he still thinks rock ‘n’ roll is for dummies), which is why he’s funny without knowing he’s funny; he also has a sadness that he’s too proud to voice. Maybe that’s one reason he drinks a bottle of whiskey a night.

As for Viggo Mortensen, in what is surely one of the greatest performances of his career, he brings a remarkable lived-in quality to the role of Tony Lip, a dim bulb of an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx who could almost be a character out of the upcoming 1960s prequel to “The Sopranos.” There are a lot of moments when we laugh at the incongruity of what Tony says or does, yet he’s never the cliché meathead we’ve chuckled at in movies a thousand times. Look closely and you’ll see that Mortensen, in this portrayal, banishes caricature. He delivers every line from deep within Tony, weighing the guy’s street smarts and runty impatience and ballsy camaraderie and lusty neurotic appetite — and, yes, his decency. (There’s a reason Tony refuses to join the Mob.) In “Green Book,” Mortensen and Ali are both musicians, playing a sublime duet. The realities the movie is about are alive in their presence.

Yet if it looked for a while like “Green Book” was going to be sensation, the film’s train to glory now seems to be skittering off the tracks. It opened last week to so-so numbers on a handful of screens, and over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend, where it’s now playing on 1,000 screens, it’s looking to come in at only $6 million, well behind “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Creed II,” “Robin Hood,” and the holiday leftovers of “The Grinch” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Sorry, but those are paltry numbers.

There’s no shame in a marvelous movie underperforming. But in the case of “Green Book,” which has been talked about from day one as a potential major awards player, the difference between early September and now is more than a matter of buzz mysteriously fizzling. Over the last few weeks, the movie has been assailed — for being a retrograde portrait of race in America. And the flap over Viggo Mortensen’s utterance of the N-word during a panel discussion for the movie on Nov. 7 is starting to feel, more and more, like a heavy nail in its awards coffin. So it’s worth looking at all the reasons why the triumph of “Green Book” came apart before it happened — and how, perhaps, that train could still straighten out.

The movie has a bad title. It really does! The title of “Green Book” refers to the underground travel handbook that African-Americans once carried in the Jim Crow South to let them know which establishments they could safely patronize. It doesn’t tell you what the film is about except in the abstract. You might say, “Really? And what did the title of ‘Rain Man’ mean?” Yet there’s something irksomely obtuse and neutral about the title of “Green Book.” A richly humane buddy movie. About two wildly captivating characters. Called “Green Book.” In the age of fragmented information, a title may not need to tell you more than that one does, but it may (without telling you anything) need to hook you more.

The movie isn’t woke enough. Those who are woke claim, through their very wokeness, to have allegiance to one thing: the transcendent morality of their cause. Yet woke culture, as practiced in America in 2018, also carries an undercurrent of competition. As in: How woke are you? Not as woke as me! I’ll see you one courageous, self-lacerating woke insight and raise you two! In this atmosphere of a never-ending contest of righteous one-upmanship fought out on Twitter, the middlebrow Hollywood liberal attitudes on display in “Green Book” can look like something from a vanished world of movies that pretend to liberate but really just pander. “Green Book” has been condemned, in certain circles, as if it were a racially stodgy and unenlightened embarrassment — the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” of 2018 awards bait. It has been called a white-savior movie — though, in fact, it is not. (The two characters save one another, which is a very different thing.) It’s been condemned for being an overly tidy fable that takes refuge in the “safe” world of the past.

But really, what is the movie’s crime? It’s based on a true story, which it tells with considerable depth. It’s not trying to make a grand statement about race except for the idea that white people and black people, to the extent that their backgrounds and experiences separate them, should try to understand each other better. Sorry, but I must have missed the place where that became a reactionary message.

Why the N-word flap hasn’t gone away. Mortensen, in saying the word itself (within the context of trying to offer a progressive argument about his movie), made a major mistake, which he acknowledged and apologized for. And it seemed, after a few days, that the flap had faded away. But because the original criticism of “Green Book” — the woke criticism of it — comes down to the notion that it’s a movie in denial of the degree to which it’s trapped in overly white attitudes, the N-word flap took on a greater symbolic significance. It now incarnates the idea that the movie itself is tainted goods — that it’s just not woke enough, that Viggo (in that interview) wasn’t woke enough, and that if you go to see the film (or vote for it to win awards), then maybe you won’t be woke enough either. This is likely a generational thing, one that feeds directly into the issue of…

Is the “Green Book” genre now too old hat? They used to make ordinary-folks-fight-the-power movies, like “Norma Rae” and “Silkwood.” Yet by the time that “Erin Brockovich” came along, the genre had become so iconic that the movie almost seemed to be saying, “Look! I’m one of those!” Similarly, a drama about two people, one black and one white, who learn to navigate their differences, and in so doing become a living on-screen metaphor for the desire so many of us have to cross bridges and tear down fences, has been a Hollywood paradigm since the days of “In the Heat of the Night” (it actually dates back to “The Defiant Ones,” in 1958). Mainstream audiences seemed perfectly in tune with it at the time of “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), but is it possible that the form has become, for a younger generation, an official cinema-museum antique? The basic audience for an old-school Hollywood buddy/road movie about race may now be limited to viewers over the age of 35. Most who seek it out will probably love it (hence the A+ that “Green Book” received from CinemaScore), but to have the kind of hit that “Green Book” was expected to be, you need a younger quandrant or two.

But here, when all is said and done, is why you should see “Green Book.” Okay, it’s a terrific movie. And one of the reasons it’s terrific is that what Peter Farrelly and his two extraordinary actors (not to slight the rest of the cast; they rock too) have brought off isn’t just funny and moving but overwhelmingly relevant to the world of today. We are, to put it mildly, living in a moment of dramatic racial discord, and movies tap into that sort of thing in mysterious ways. “Green Book” is set in 1962, but the film isn’t really about the sinister policies of Jim Crow. It’s about two men meeting each other with their egos in hand, each dancing around the other with curiosity and suspicion and amusement and fear, then waking up to the fact that each possesses layers the other never suspected. The place they’re heading to is a better place — in fact, it’s a woke place. They just don’t call it that. And you may not either. But you’ll feel it and take it with you.

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