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Short Take: Green Book

(Peter Farrelly, USA, Universal Pictures, Opening November 16)

Published from 1936 to 1966, the “green book” was a travel guide for African-Americans that listed housing and other establishments known to be welcoming to them in the otherwise terroristic segregated South. In Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, Italian-American club doorman Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is handed a copy by the managers of black classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who has hired him as chauffeur for a Southern tour with his trio.

Their trip together, which comprises the bulk of the film, gets much mileage out of a familiar but exquisitely performed Odd Couple routine: Tony the lovable, crude but decent-hearted lug is schooled on the finer points by the cultured, finicky, immaculately dressed Don. In response to both minor and egregious offenses encountered on the road, Don radiates dignity, while Tony gets the film’s blue ribbon for being tolerant of difference.

The dynamic is legitimately funny at times, softening us up at a moment when there’s a desperate need to see and feel harmony in the world (and offering a more sentimental alternative to the gauntlet thrown down by the differently genre-tweaking BlacKkKlansman). But Farrelly (who’s credited for the screenplay alongside Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie) squanders the goodwill he builds up as well as the talents and charisma of these two stars, who breathe life into their broadly drawn roles. Once Don has been humiliated and worse at the hands of assorted racists, Green Book steers head-on into schmaltz and bromides, falling into the people-need-good-news trap of making a true story somehow sound too good to be true.

Nicolas Rapold is Film Comment’s editor-in-chief.