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'Green Book' review: Winning film hits the right notes of humor, tenderness and dignity

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali n "Green Book."

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali n "Green Book."  Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Patti Perret

PLOT In 1962, a black musician and his white driver take a concert tour of the American South.

CAST Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

RATED PG-13 (language and adult themes)

LENGTH 2:10

BOTTOM LINE A heartfelt ode to the bond between two real-life men.

Who would have thought that Peter Farrelly, the director who gave us “Dumb and Dumber,” would deliver one of the year’s most seriously heart-tugging movies?

Farrelly’s “Green Book,” about an African-American musician and a white chauffeur traveling through the Deep South, is one of those real-life stories that seems almost too perfect — a buddy comedy about racial harmony and tolerance. Yet thanks to its two stars, Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”), and a lovely script co-written by one of the characters’ sons, Nick Vallelonga, “Green Book” never feels preachy or treacly. It strikes just the right notes of humor, tenderness and dignity.

Those expecting another “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which the black man must confront racism with bottomless love, or another “In the Heat of the Night,” in which the white man must be wrong about virtually everything, will appreciate the fresh approach of “Green Book.” Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, a garrulous but hard-hitting Italian bouncer at New York’s famous Copacabana nightclub in the early 1960s. Tony is a stereotype, to be sure, but Mortensen gives all the gesticulating and shoulder-shrugging an undercurrent of sincerity; we believe in this guy.

When the club closes for renovations, Tony applies to be the driver for  Dr. Donald Shirley (Ali), who turns out to be a classically trained musician — and he’s black. Shirley is also a snob and an effete (he conducts the interview in African attire from atop a throne), though we can tell his mannerisms are a cover for his insecurities. Tony’s job will be both cushy and perilous: a tour through the segregated South. Using what was known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, they’ll stop at hotels, restaurants and other safe spaces between concert halls and ritzy private venues.

As Tony and Shirley get to know each other, they play out several satisfying narratives. Shirley the city mouse introduces Tony to sophisticated music and fine food, and helps him write eloquent letters home to his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini). Tony the country mouse introduces Shirley to the pleasures of Kentucky Fried Chicken. They also pick and choose their battles with white venue owners who welcome Shirley to their stages but not into their restrooms. By the time Tony discovers his employer is gay, we believe that these men have come to understand and accept each other.

“Green Book” has its too-pat moments and speeches, but they’re few and far between. With Farrelly’s sensitive direction, two terrific lead performances and intriguing musical segments lifted directly from Shirley’s idiosyncratic recordings, “Green Book” is a winner.

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