There’s a recurring bit in Peter Farrelly’s dramedy The Greatest Beer Run Ever where well-intentioned merchant Marine Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron) fails miserably to explain to soldiers he’s visiting in Vietnam why he’s there. They simply can’t fathom why somebody who doesn’t need to be there in “the shit”, would volunteer to do so…just to drop off a few beers. That’s sortof the movie in a nutshell. Similar to Farrelly’s Best Picture winner Green Book, the film is an entertaining but shallow look at a period of time with issues that still resonate today. Chances are you’ll enjoy watching Efron down brewskies and dodge bullets, but it’s also doubtful you’ll take anything from it other than a hankering for a stiff drink.
As incredible as it may be, The Greatest Beer Run Ever is not a complete fabrication, although aspects of the story are obviously fictional as Hell. John “Chickie” Donohue is a real guy, who is sick and tired of the negative press about what our soldiers were doing in Vietnam. Multiple young men from his Inwood neighborhood either signed up or were drafted to fight, and too many of them weren’t coming back. So he decides, after some encouragement from bartender/military vet The Colonel (Bill Murray, weird role), to load up a duffel bag full of beers, fly to ‘Nam, and find the local boys stationed there to share with them a cold one. Well, a likely very hot one, actually.
In true Farrelly fashion, subtlety isn’t remotely on the menu. Chickie breaks into an argument, then an actual fist fight, with anti-war protestors led by his sister (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis). To be fair, most arguments that break out at protests aren’t particularly nuanced, but the problem is things don’t get better elsewhere, either. Similar to Green Book‘s simplistic view of racism, The Greatest Beer Run Ever tackles the true costs of war with the flippancy of, well, a bunch of guys at a bar.
I think it’s fair to say at this point that Farrelly will always direct his movies with the same broadly comedic style that he developed with his brother for years. Regardless of the seriousness of the subject, his movies will always look like they’re meant to make us laugh, and there will be a lack of urgency and authenticity that’s detrimental. For instance, Chickie is unbelievably able to talk his way into anything the plot requires of him. He works aboard a shipping vessel sailing into Vietnam and has no problem chatting his way into three days off. From there, he uses his civilian garb and easy charm to convince the apparently moronic military brass that he’s CIA and the more he denies it the more they buy into it. He can basically go anywhere he wants from there. Uh, sure.
So this is ridiculous, impossible to buy-into stuff, but Chickie’s misadventures are still quite entertaining. Efron doesn’t have anything to prove anymore, and his Chickie is one of the most convincing aspects of the story. He’s not a bad guy, or a warmonger, he’s just a clueless guy who, as he admits “Isn’t doing anything” and wants to do something the boys both home and abroad can take some comfort in. Of course, he gets his eyes opened real wide while in Vietnam, and is reminded frequently how crazy his mission is. One frustrated friend Chickie left to visit actually teaches him a lesson by putting him in the middle of a real firefight while in Khe San.
Adding some gravitas to the film is Russell Crowe in a great performance as a war photographer who teaches Chickie what the reality of Vietnam really is. Sure, his dialogue is often heavy-handed message-making (“The people who run this war? They’re politicians!!”), but Crowe brings a world weariness that at least suggests that war is truly Hell, and not as black & white as Chickie believes. Aesthetically, the film feels appropriately of its era. In particular the soundtrack is killer and makes terrific use of some unexpected classics, including Jefferson Airplane’s “Today”.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a novel, well-intentioned story with absolutely nothing new to say about the Vietnam War. It’s long established that our time in Vietnam was wasteful, corrupt, and unforgivably destructive. Nothing good came out of that quagmire. So when Chickie returns home to deliver this message to his empty-headed friends, there isn’t much for viewers to do but shrug. We already knew that.
Apple TV+ will premiere The Greatest Beer Run Ever on September 30th.