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Opinion ‘Green Book’ is an old-fashioned Oscar movie in a rapidly changing world

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book." (Patti Perret/Universal Pictures via AP)

Mark Harris’s 2008 book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” told the story of Hollywood’s changing mores through the lens of the best picture nominees at the 40th Academy Awards. The slate that year was a fascinating mix of New Hollywood boldness (“The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde”), old-school Hollywood liberalism (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), and dated Hollywood spectacle that inspired groans from sophisticates and shrugs from audiences (“Doctor Doolittle”).

The stakes were not little golden statues, according to Harris, “but who was going to win ownership of the whole enterprise of contemporary moviemaking. … The divide was generational, but also aesthetic — these were people who were rejecting what movies had been in favor of what they could be — and the fight was unabating.”

I couldn’t help but think of Harris’s book while watching “Green Book” and looking at the response to that film’s sluggish box office. But not because the picture, about an Italian bigot who learns about tolerance while driving an African American piano player from concert to concert across the South, reminds me of “In the Heat of the Night” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” No, “Green Book” feels much more like “Doctor Doolittle”: dated and unsure of its place in a market that’s rapidly changing.

This is a somewhat harsh judgment, given that “Green Book” is, frankly, a perfectly competent piece of filmmaking. Its self-seriousness is leavened with humor; Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali deliver fine, if somewhat broad, performances; the story zips along and hits all the expected notes. “Doctor Doolittle,” by way of comparison, was a bloated, silly mess that, I assume, was borderline-unwatchable at the time of release and is utterly unwatchable today. (Give it a shot; I have.)

But “Green Book” is still undeniably old-fashioned, the sort of picture that feels a bit like a parody of Oscar bait. It’s a race-swapped “Driving Miss Daisy,” a movie reliant on tropes about progress and change that have felt like punchlines for years. A movie of this sort hasn’t won it all since “Crash” in 2006; the socially conscious films favored by the Academy in recent years have been starker, striking fare such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.”

Audiences also seem to have tired of this sort of movie. “Green Book” was soft in limited release, doing an underwhelming-for-an-Oscar-contender $12,000 per screen on 22 screens before going wider over Thanksgiving weekend and winding up with a disappointing ninth-place $5.5 million haul. Granted, those who saw the film liked it: “Green Book” scored a rare and coveted A-plus from CinemaScore.

But, as Harris asked at Vulture this week: “Who was Green Book for?” As the historian and critic notes, the segment of the moviegoing audience to whom a film like “Green Book” might appeal — namely, white liberals seeking reassurance about the basic decency of all people and our mutual need for reconciliation, the sort who made “In the Heat of the Night” an enormous success all those years ago — is dwindling. Jourdain Searles was blunter at the Ringer in her answer to Harris’s question: “Green Book fails as a comedy and racial commentary, but at least [director Peter] Farrelly was able to make racists comfortable for Christmas.”

This strikes me as an unfair, but understandable, response. The presumptive crowning of “Green Book” as an end-of-year front-runner — its championing by Oscar watchers like Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells and Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone; the National Board of Review choosing it as best picture of the year — rankles. In a year with envelope-pushing films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman” and “Sorry to Bother You,” one needn’t be a radical (lord knows I’m not) to feel some kinship with the generation of critics who rejected efforts by the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther to snuff out “Bonnie and Clyde” in favor of more respectable fare.

One wonders if 2018’s crop of films isn’t set to be a replay of 1968’s Oscar ceremony, one that pits a faded genre’s final champion against a new breed of prestige pictures. As pleasantly entertaining and easygoing as it is, if “Green Book” is the best, most interesting, most thought-provoking movie you’ve seen this year, I have to wonder how many films you’ve watched.

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