Directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, Green Book is a movie with the same blinkered blandness that defines those derided Oscar favorites of yesteryear. It’s a tale of a “true friendship” in the early 1960s between fast-talking wise guy Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) and the guarded but brilliant pianist Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Though the particulars of its true-story script have been challenged by Shirley’s family, Green Book is pitching itself to audiences as a movie about the unlikely and astonishing bond between these two men—one a working-class, Italian American bouncer, and the other a well-educated, African American virtuoso.
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Initial buzz marked Green Book as a potential word-of-mouth sensation. It won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, a solid bellwether for Oscar attention, and got a sterling A+ CinemaScore, a metric that gauges how well a movie meets audience’s expectations. But Green Book has actually underperformed at the box office, making only $36 million in eight weeks of release. That’s less than Widows ($42 million) and Hereditary ($44 million), and only slightly more than Annihilation ($32 million), three challenging, critically acclaimed genre films that are being totally ignored this awards season.
So why is Green Book still barreling toward Oscar success? It keeps scoring major guild nominations—from the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Writers Guild, and two from the Screen Actors Guild. It received seven Critics’ Choice nods and four BAFTA nods, and, of course, the film won three Golden Globes, including Best Picture (Musical or Comedy), last weekend. When Oscar nominations are announced on January 22 (voting began January 7 and ends a week later), Green Book will almost certainly be shortlisted for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, and possibly a few technical awards.
The easiest explanation for the impressive awards trajectory of Green Book (relative to its middling ticket sales) is its acting. As my colleague Christopher Orr noted in his review, the film is entirely elevated by the work of Mortensen and Ali, who have tremendous chemistry together and fully commit to the “opposites attract” notion of Tony and Don’s friendship. The actors manage to sell a premise that feels flimsier the more it’s scrutinized: Don is helping Tony understand that black people exist beyond whatever crude stereotypes he might imagine, while Tony is also helping Don … loosen up a little and not take life so seriously.
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The stakes are tremendously lopsided, which Farrelly himself acknowledged in a Vanity Fair interview about the film. “Doc Shirley didn’t need a savior,” the director said. “Yes, Tony Lip got him out of some earthy problems, but Doc Shirley saved Tony Lip’s soul. He changed him. He made him a better human being.” That point of view is reflected by the film, which gives over more storytelling time to Tony (the film begins and ends with him and his family) and was co-written by his son Nick Vallelonga.