FILM REVIEW: “Green Book” and “On the Basis of Sex” disappoint in different ways
Green Book is cinematic confection with a heart-warming odd-couple friendship as its sweet centre. Anchored by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson operating at peak flow, the totality of the acting chops on display is constantly admirable, even if the script doesn’t live up to their marvellous work.
These two world-class actors ensure a smooth ride for a general audience throughout this road movie. Ali is Don Shirley, an African-American musical genius who hires the uncouth and brash Italian-American Tony “Lip” (Mortenson) to be his driver/bodyguard. He’ll need him; Shirley is undertaking a musical tour through the deep south at the height of the Jim Crow era. The film’s title refers to a travelogue detailing all the hotels and gas stations and restaurants safe for African-Americans - a Rosetta stone of institutionalised racism.
Sadly, for all its entertainment value, the details surrounding this Oscar-baity project are sketchy and uncomfortable, keeping it far from greatness. For one, this ‘true story’ of friendship is extremely untrue. It’s well known that Hollywood is full of shit and that little things like facts rarely get in the way of a well-told narrative, but this film takes it a few steps too far. It’s unethical.
Don Shirley’s insistence on maintaining his civility in the face of racism and the film’s positioning of this as inspiring and noble feels like an implicit suggestion that the broken system will correct itself if dignity is maintained in the face of inhumane behaviour. This is, of course, a malicious fantasy. Tony Lip’s casual racism being played for cheap laughs compounds the unexamined ugliness and tone-deaf nature of this screenplay. It almost goes without saying that it was written (and directed) by white men.
These fetid racial politics occasionally rear their ugly head and sour Green Book’s virtuous sweetness – like when Lip exclaims to Shirley that Lip is “blacker than he is”, because Shirley isn’t familiar with the works of Little Richard and doesn’t eat fried chicken. The problem isn’t the line itself – after all, dialogue doesn’t equal endorsement – but that the film doesn’t care to interrogate this kind of putrid thinking.
I can only conclude that Green Book is childish and simple at heart despite its pedigree talent and polish. It is deeply unfortunate but worth thinking about, even if you’re enjoying this glossy movie as it zips along. Because, if taken seriously as a film about racism, Green Book is pernicious twaddle.
The rest of the film, however, is well above average. It has a pleasing and homey aesthetic which befits the easy-going tone. Linda Cardellini brings sunlight and sincerity to a threadbare role as Tony Lip’s wife and Director Peter Farrelly is never heavy-handed with the sentimentality. Green Book is engineered to please. And it does for the most part. But if there’s any talk of this film being more than an occasionally poignant bit of frivolity, well…I can only shake my head at that.
3 out of 5 stars
Is there a word that describes a movie so blandly competent and flavourless that to recall it would be as difficult as recalling last Tuesday’s lunch? If you find it let me know, because that’s the exact word for On the Basis of Sex, the new biopic based on Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg is, without a doubt, a remarkably tough and sharp lawyer who fought for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality. She was and is a trailblazer.
Sadly, On the Basis of Sex is just the latest example of remarkable, tough and historically important people being the subject of unremarkable, soft-as-porridge movies designed to placate the elderly and preach to the converted. Unlike the dreadfully inert Bohemian Rhapsody, however, On the Basis of Sex is not just a sloppy, piecemeal collection of biopic tropes. It is actually sporadically interesting.
When Felicity Jones’ Ginsburg is verbally parrying with sexist men or her angry and energetic teenage daughter (who, unlike her mother, believes changing the system from within is a futile endeavour) or when she is finding comfort with her homebody husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), On the Basis of Sex almost coalesces into something that isn’t entirely grey. Our introduction to the young Ginsburg is a sheer delight. As a hundred young men pour into Harvard Law School, our eye is drawn to a dainty figure of cheerful turquoise that appears comically brighter amidst the sea of colourless hats and coats and trousers. Before she’s even said a word, we know there’s a certain fearlessness and resilience to her.
This lush visual storytelling is something that is sorely missing throughout the rest of On the Basis of Sex. From there, it’s a series of stultifying legal conversations and exposition about the particulars of gender in the legal system. It ends with a rousing and impassioned speech by Ginsburg. Naturally, this wins the day. And if had not seen it one hundred times before, it would’ve moved me.