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'Green Book' brimming with humanity

One for the books

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Racism is arguably the toughest topic for filmmakers to handle. Eager to expose its evil, they occasionally overreach, distort or become downright preachy. That's why the humor, honesty, humanity and subtlety of Green Book is such an unexpected treat, and it's all the more surprising considering it comes from one of cinema's least subtle directors: Peter Farrelly.

Avoiding the tired tropes of many recent social dramas, which have painted all people of the same ethnicity with the same brush, Farrelly carefully constructs a unique story of the friendship between a gruff, white Italian New Yorker and a sophisticated, well-educated African American. Inspired by the real relationship between bar bouncer Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga and classical pianist Don Shirley, Green Book focuses on the latter's 1962 concert tour of the American South, for which he hired Tony as his driver and bodyguard.

Shirley knew well what he might be in for. So to help navigate the cultural waters of the Deep South, he turned to The Negro Motorist Green Book. This publication, written by Victor Hugo Green, advised black travelers on friendly places to stay and eat in the era of Jim Crow. But Shirley also knew it would take Vallelonga's muscle and common sense to make the trip go smoothly. What he could not have expected, however, was that they both would grow wiser and more culturally aware thanks to their unlikely 10-week union.

As Vallelonga, Viggo Mortensen is simply wonderful, bringing accessibility and humor to a role that, in another actor's hands, might have been relegated to a meathead racist stereotype. After all, his character begins the film by referring to black men as "eggplants." But because of the well-crafted script and Mortensen's skills, Vallelonga becomes a complete person. It's on par with his Oscar-nominated role as Ben Cash in Captain Fantastic for pure enjoyability.

Mahershala Ali, as Shirley, also grasps his character's complexities. Never reducing his erudite, slightly snobby character to one-dimensionality, Ali gives us perhaps his best performance ever. (That's saying something after Moonlight and House of Cards.) And in the supporting role of Vallelonga's wife, Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks, Bloodline) adds even more tenderness and relatability.

Written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (Anthony Vallelonga's son), the film treads somewhat familiar waters in its second act. But just when you think you've sussed its direction, it comes up with another surprise. And with a pleasant score by Kris Bowers – along with one of the year's catchiest soundtracks – you'll marvel at how fast the 130 minutes fly.

In the movie's most surprising and raw moment, Shirley confronts Vallelonga after the latter – in one of his few moments of cultural insight – suggests that, socially and economically, he might actually be more "black" than Shirley. "So if I'm not black enough and if I'm not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?" Shirley laments.

Though that question might be too complicated for a two-hour dramedy, it still deserves to be asked, even by the co-director of Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary. Good on you, Farrelly. That'll teach us to judge Book by its cover.