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Actors’ chemistry enlivens inspirational road movie ‘Green Book’

From the moment these two very different strangers climb into a gleaming new turquoise Cadillac and begin their eight-week journey, we know where this movie is going.

We know there will be episodes of light comedy and instances of petty bickering. We know there will be bonding and then some un-bonding, and probably more bonding.

Linda Cardellini in a scene from “Green Book.” (SOURCE: Universal Pictures)

We know there will be conflicts, maybe even a fight or two.

And given the setting and the premise, we know there will be some profound statements about where we were and where we are.

Indeed, “Green Book” meets our expectations at every intersection and occasionally veers from the sentimental lane into a corny patch, and yet it’s still one of best comfort-food movies of the year, a lovely and sweet road movie that plays a compacted 1960s role-reversal take on “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Inspired by true events, “Green Book” gets its name from “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a mid-20th century guidebook with a state-by-state listing of gas stations, restaurants and motels that would serve black travelers.

“The Green Book” comes into play here because the year is 1962, and one Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer and enforcer from the Bronx, has been hired to drive the renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a two-month tour of the famed Don Shirley Trio that will zip through the Midwest before taking a hard left through the Deep South.

Don is a sophisticated, worldly, highly educated, genius musician who speaks multiple languages, while Lip is a grunting, ignorant semi-thug whose entire and quite limited worldview has been shaped by his life in the Bronx. (When two black repairmen come to Lip’s house and his wife serves them lemonade, Lip throws out the glasses they used.)

Temporarily out of work and in dire need of cash, Lip takes the fairly lucrative ($125 a week plus expenses) gig, and off they go, with Lip chain-smoking and talking up a storm in the front seat, while the regal Don sits up straight in the back seat, wearing beautifully coordinated outfits and with a blanket across his lap.

Mortensen lays it on thick with the Bronx accent, but with the extra poundage around his middle and the way he carries himself, we totally believe him as a thick-headed lunk who deep down has a pretty big heart. (From the get-go, we see Lip is head over heels in love with his wife of 15-plus years, and a doting father to his children.)

Ali’s Don is the straight man to Lip’s antics, but he, too, is nothing but believable, whether Don is lecturing Lip about the ways of the world, helping him write letters to his wife or sitting down at the keyboard to perform his dazzling artistry. (Lip, who knows nothing about music beyond rock ‘n’ roll, becomes Don’s biggest fan, waiting in the wings at each performance and bragging that Don “plays like Liberace, only better.”)

Again and again, Lip’s eyes are opened to the depths of racism in the Deep South. The crappy motels where Don has to stay. The glad-handing old Southern “gentleman” who eagerly welcomes the Don Shirley Trio into his home to play for a crowd of swells, but points to the outhouse when Don asks to use the bathroom. The country club manager who tells Don he can’t join Lip and Don’s bandmates in the dining room.

Alternating with the heavier scenes, we get comedic moments, most of them centering on Lip getting Don to loosen up, e.g., when they visit a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky (Lip thinks that’s the greatest thing ever), and Lip is amazed to find out Don has never eaten fried chicken and becomes determined to fix that.

“Green Book” is directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, of the comedic Farrelly brothers who brought us “There’s Something About Mary”) and written by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga. (In the obligatory “photos of the real-life subjects” closing credits sequence, we learn the two men stayed friends for about 40 years before dying a few months apart. Nice.)

Linda Cardellini does fine work as Lip’s wife, even though she’s saddled with one of those wife roles in which most of her screen time is spent on the phone with Lip, reading letters from Lip or talking to her girlfriends about Lip.

Primarily, though, “Green Book” is a friendship story about the two men. Most of their adventures are painted in broad strokes, and the messages are hardly subtle, but thanks in large part to the winning chemistry between Ali and Mortensen, and a pretty inspirational true-life story as its foundation, this was one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.

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