The question of whether Green Book is worse on race or worse on class is a tough one. It's at least more spectacularly bad on race; but I, for one, was unprepared for it to touch on class at all, so that came as the far uglier surprise. Either way, it's the kind of modestly horrifying thing that exists primarily to reward a stubbornly bourgeois audience that primarily wants to watch movies because they reward the viewer for beliefs they already hold, and do not reflect upon too rigorously. Y'know, prime Oscarbait of the absolute worst sort.

The film is based on a true story: in the last two months of 1962, Jamaican-American pianist, composer, and holder of three PhDs, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) elected to go on a performance tour primarily in the southeast of the U.S., with the explicit goal of changing hearts and minds among the genteelly racist art lovers of that region. To serve as his chauffeur, assistant, and if need be his bodyguard, he hired Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York, whose son Nick is one of the film's three co-writers. As Tony drives Don around on an eight-week trip, according to the movie, they solved racism in America.

Yes, it's one of those message movies, the kind that apparently take it for granted that everything that's ever been bad has been fixed, and you - yes you, dear viewer, the one living in the year of our Lord 2018, from which vantage point you are able to soberly cluck and shake your head over how just plain awful they used to be back in the dark old ages, back in the Nineteen Sixties - in particular should feel good about how it just so happens to be the case that you and the filmmaker have the correct opinions about everything. Extracting all of the ways in which Green Book does not, in fact, have the correct opinions about everything would be tedious, but surely the biggest one is the most expected: this is entirely the story of how Tony learned to be a better person than the shabby, dirty, crude bastard he starts out as (there's the classism...), while Don is reduced solely to a sounding board for Tony's ascent to goodness, with an almost conspicuous, deliberate lack of character of his own except in, literally, two scenes (...and there's the racism!). It is almost exactly the same as the thing it most openly sounds like, 1989's Best Picture Oscar winner Driving Miss Daisy, in all of the bad ways, and... well, if Driving Miss Daisy had any good ways, I imagine this would resemble those too.

The dreary shabbiness of good intentions is nothing new 'round about Oscar time, of course, and if that's all there was to Green Book - if it were naught but a Crash for a new decade - I'm not sure that I'd feel quite so acutely antagonised by it. But this is really quite a dreadful movie, not just bland, underthought middlebrow tosh. It's junkily made: director and co-writer Peter Farrelly, working for the first time without brother Bobby and also at least notionally for the first time outside of the realm of trashy comedies, demonstrates no handle for how to stage scenes, leading to a film that occasionally rises up to the level of workmanlike competence, but more often is just tired. Like, the way the inside of the car is blocked: there are sometimes Ali sits behind the driver seat, and sometimes behind the passenger seat, and it never matters, except in one early scene, featured in the trailers and attacked by Shirley's surviving family members, in which Tony passes back some fried chicken to his befuddled passenger (who feels like a sitcom parody of an out-of-touch, effete snob, and also as the film's tool for beating up on how uncouth and gross Tony can be). And it's not, like, the quintessence of cinema is that you have to figure out how to do interesting things in the space between the front andΒ  back seats of a car. But to not even bother trying, that just speaks to artistic laziness. It shows up other places, too: every damn time Don sits down at his piano, it's going to be shot from the same angles in the same order, for example. And in the one petty thing that just ruined my whole mood, there's a moment during the film's big climactic scene in a roadside juke joint where the front door opens in the middle of the frame, behind a rapt crowd, and we see somebody start to enter, and this is literally just whatever business the extras were up to. But it feels like a plot point, and, I mean, Jesus, making sure you don't have weird distracting movement in the back of shots, that's fundamental. That is literal first-year-of-film-school shit.

Anyway, Farrelly the visual director has nothing up his sleeve, other than perhaps a willingness to overindulge cinematographer Sean Porter, or maybe even to encourage him to shoot everything in the hazy light of a warm summer (it appears to be an awfully fucking hot December, even by Alabama standards). Whatever. The big crime is what he has enabled Mortensen to do. Ali, at least is fine. I don't think he's better than fine, and I don't think the writing permits him to be, but he's fine. Mortensen, though, is giving one of the great "holy shit, what were you thinking?" performances in recent memory. His approach to playing an unsophisticated New York Italian man doesn't feel drawn from life, but from pop culture. The real-life Tony Lip played a small recurring role in the TV series The Sopranos, and indeed it's easy to imagine Mortensen carefully studying the colorful excess of that show, taking notes, and then filtering that through his severe, Danish frame to come up with - whatever the fucking hell it is. It's a caricature, but somehow more than that: messier, uglier, more deranged. The film's Tony, for no reason other than "because it's colorful!", keeps goddamn eating all the time, and Mortensen turns that omnipresent source of stage business into something truly off-putting and awesome: he's lustful and violent as he paws at food, mashing it into his mouth, rending it with his hands in thick, meaty swipes. His line readings are mind-blowing, leaning into the most garish extremes of an eyyyy-I'm-from-Noo-Yawk-uh-somptin' accent imaginable, yet somehow the actor's native Danish has almost never been so pronounced in any of his English-language performances. His hand gestures feel like he's trying to perform air traffic control for a whole squadron of invisible airplanes.

At any rate, I guess I'm grateful for it - take out Mortensen, and Green Book is boring. Put him in it, and it becomes the most hypnotic train wreck of 2018's Oscar season. I am, to be a total ass about it, absolutely flabbergasted that anybody, anywhere could possibly believe in any of this, but here we are; if this somehow manages to end up snagging Best Picture, which from my current perch in the first week of December 2018 seems decidedly possible, it will effortlessly take the crown as the very worst movie ever honored with that prize, and God help me, I kind of hope that's just what happens.