Saturday, 26 January 2019

Best Supporting Actor 2018: Mahershala Ali in Green Book.

Mahershala Ali won his second Oscar from his second nomination for portraying Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book.

Mahershala Ali's second Oscar nomination comes from a very different character and film, than his Oscar winning turn in Moonlight. Green Book itself is a film with a doubly skewed intentions. On one hand you have the classic prestige drama, the very classic prestige drama as the film feels more like a film made before than the new millennium in tone and style. On the other hand you honestly have a film more akin to the works of director Peter Farrelly, when working cooperatively with his brother as the Farrelly brothers, which is the comedic road picture, found in partially in their There's Something About Mary, but far more evident in Kingpin and especially Dumb and Dumber. This separation sets honestly two separate expectations of sorts upon the performers, Ali in particular, who despite being put into supporting is co-lead with Viggo Mortensen as Shirley's driver Tony Lip, and often feels closer to the center of the film as a the film attempts to give him the most vivid character arc and personal journey. Although we enter Shirley's life through Tony needing a job, we firmly stay in his life once we enter it, more so than Tony Lip's.

Now on the prestige drama side of things you get the expected set up of two actors playing real people. Ali playing a concert pianist in Shirley, who is so accomplished he literally lives above Carnegie hall. Ali's work here is very mannered in order to create the admittedly rather idiosyncratic personal style of the actual Shirley. Ali's most effective trait in this regard is the higher pitch accent he uses, which he manages to use consistently, and it does feel like a lived part of his performance. Sadly I wouldn't say the overall way he plays Shirely as being overtly strict in his physical manners is as natural. Ali over does this just a touch in playing him as such a man of class that he becomes robotic at times in his way of standing just so straight, and keeping this certain blank expression within his face at times. This is never to the point of overt distraction, but it kind of weighs upon Ali's work at times that makes him seem stiffer than is the intention for the character. As in, Ali himself is the one who comes off as a bit stiff rather than the character of Shirley.

Of course one could argue his physical mannerisms in a way are perfectly aligned with the more comedic buddy road picture in that we have an odd couple through the high brow, thin, prim and proper Shirley, against the crass, working class, overweight, and brutish Tony. Are you ready for some hi-jinks involving these difference, no? Well actually I'd say the completely weightless moments between Shirley and Tony are easily the best moments in the film. This is mainly because Ali and Mortensen strike up some good chemistry with one another. They manage to, even in their deeply mannered turns, find some natural levity in their work as the two clash in a more comedic fashion over minor issues of attitude and personal style. Their moments of less "important" interactions are pretty well realized actually as Ali and Mortensen find the right way to play off of each other to find the humor as well as hit the marks of creating the gradual growth in sense of warmth between them. This really is a classical technique, you'll see it in your Carrey/Daniels, your Candy/Martins, and of course De Niro/Grodins, mind you the instances of these scenes here aren't on level of those aforementioned, but it's more than decent in this regard thanks to the performances.

This film though has higher ambitions seeking to make grand statements as Shirley goes down south facing racism from one corner to another. This is also not helped by Shirley having a bit of a drinking problem, which doesn't help Ali's performance that leads to some, not so great acting from him sadly. His drunk scene unfortunately gets towards a cacophony of over drawn mannerisms that makes Ali's work briefly become a bit cartoony frankly, and any sense of the real sadness behind these acts is lost in the moment. Don't worry though this part of the film also leads to Ali's Oscar scenes, which might as well have Oscar clip written at the bottom of them by how lacking in subtlety they are. Ali certainly throws himself into both of them, that come in short succession. The first in a jail cell, about how he must take a non-violent route to change minds. I mean to be fair Ali throws his passion behind the scene to try to make it work, even as the mechanics of it are far too obvious. The same goes to the scene shortly afterwards where Tony says he's blacker than Shirley is, and we get a most dramatic scene, rainfall and all, as Shirley proclaims "Who am I then". Again I'll give Ali credit here, he puts forth the determined passion once again, with the requisite emotional distress, it's there, if somewhat hollow as the moments as written do not feel earned or. It doesn't really explore the idea of black identity, in fact it almost uses it strangely as though it is just being critical of Shirley then leaving it at that rather bizarrely. Don't worry though it is all cured from playing at a working class black night club. Ehhh, these elements are what don't work about it as it is excessively rote and painfully simplistic. It's not Ali's fault though as he does his best for the most part, even if a touch overplayed at times, however I theoretically wouldn't have minded just seeing Mortensen and Ali hang out for awhile as they do have chemistry. They work together, and together I feel make the "feel good" ending work so far as it's nice to see the two be charming and loving together. Ali's a good actor, this is not his best work, but it is not entirely without merit.


Calvin Law said...

They might as well have just re-made The Scalphunters or something with these fellas or something and called it a day, because I agree with everything about this review. I do actually think his mannerisms worked to an extent, and yeah the voice is fine, but I hated that drunken scene like you. I also think the worst scene of his performance is that infamous scene of him standing by and watching people work in the fields. Now that was in bad taste and frankly his face could not look more bemused.

I would come close to saying he’s great in his blatant Oscar scenes but again, like you said, it’s really not earnt by the film, and really the best parts are the lightest ones.

Charles H said...

Yeah. i just don't see this one. I can't find a redeeming quality within his performance. He's not entirely terrible for me i just think he lacked any comedic timing or chemistry.

Mitchell Murray said...

Apart from a few ratings differences, Louis, you and I are pretty much on the same page for this year's supporting actor field: One limited performance (Rockwell), one uneven performance (Ali), two very good performances (Driver and Elliott), and one great performance (Grant). Perhaps when compared to last year's terrific line up, this group seems that much weaker, but I think we can all agree the category has been a lot worse.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I admit I’m harsher on this performance than I need to be, and did have moments I liked (the letter scenes), but I also think the script boxed him into a corner by giving such a two-dimensional portrait of a potentially interesting figure. I’ve mentioned how mannered and fussy I found his apporach, but I’ve realized that could have really worked with a script that made Shirley the actual star and gave him a real arc. It’s a shame how badly this film hampers its actors (though I feel less kind to Viggo).

Michael McCarthy said...

I’m a little easier on him for the stiff mannerisms. At first they didn’t work for me, but when they were shown to be putons by Shirley itself they made more sense. I also couldn’t agree more with you about his drunk scenes, those were painful to watch. I’d give him a 4 probably.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Concerning Viggo, I feel even more annoyed than I already was with his performance. No matter how much chemistry he and Ali have, or whatever thoughtful glance he gives in his silent moments, he leans HARD into the cartoon goombah the script goves him. All nuance vanish once he starts talking with that impression of Jon Stewart already doing a New York Italian impression. As an Italian American, I was more offended by his work than any Scorsese gamgster. At least they’re humanoid.