Review: The Greatest Beer Run Ever — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Director Peter Farrelly tells the real-life story of an army vet who decides to travel to war-torn Vietnam to bring his battle-weary buddies a beer.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever (courtesy TIFF)

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The Greatest Beer Run Ever

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Stars: Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Bill Murray

Writers: Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Pete Jones

Director: Peter Farrelly

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

I do not recall a movie I was more determined to love than The Greatest Beer Run Ever, director Peter Farrelly’s account of a real-life New Yorker’s 1967 trip to war-torn Vietnam for the sole purpose of delivering cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to his friends on the field of battle.

The film has such a subversive premise, so much opportunity for M*A*S*H-like mayhem, it seemed like a movie that would write and direct itself. So it pains me to report that, against all odds, this Beer is disappointingly flat.

Farrelly, who steered Green Book to Oscar gold a few years back, is a talented filmmaker, and Beer Run is not without moments of gleeful thumb-in-the-eye irreverence. But, like me, Farrelly seems to have thought Beer Run would float along on its frothy premise, punctuated by the occasional explosion of wartime violence. Instead, the film stumbles tipsily along, from lamp post to lamp post, uncertain of its way home.

The year is 1967, and Chickie Donohue (mustachioed Zac Efron), an army vet and merchant seaman, is among the dwindling number of Americans who are still all-in when it comes to the war in Vietnam. He considers Walter Cronkite unpatriotic when he reports the weekly casualty totals; he gets into fistfights with anti-war protestors in Washington Square Park. Mostly, he argues with his peacenik sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), who is keeping a grim tally of local boys killed in the war — and whose love for her brother is clearly the only thing keeping her from whipping him upside the head.

Hanging with his buddies at a local bar, Chickie muses about showing support for the troops and says, almost as an afterthought, that he’d like to bring each and every one of his friends in ’Nam a beer. That’s all Gus the bartender (Bill Murray, who must have owed Farrelly a favor) needs to hear: He offers a duffel bag full of brews for the journey. And just like that, Chickie is signing up for the next merchant ship to the port of Saigon.

As it turns out, Farrelly’s “just like that” storytelling strategy is one of the things that ultimately defeats The Greatest Beer Run Ever. Throughout the film, one thing after another happens “just like that.” One moment, Chickie’s in New York — and just like that, he’s in Saigon, as if the ensuing months at sea never dragged on. He gets off the boat and, just like that, one of his old neighborhood buddies happens to be standing on the dock and happens to know precisely where every other guy from home is currently stationed.

Now the “just like thats” begin to pile up like traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway: Chickie gets to hop on virtually any military plane he wants because, in his civvies, just like that everyone assumes he’s a CIA operative. Wandering the countryside in pitch-black night, Chickie finds himself in the headlights of a speeding jeep — driven by one of his childhood friends. Stranded in Saigon when his merchant ship leaves without him, Chickie saunters into the U.S. Embassy, where a friendly clerk gets him booked on a plane to Thailand the next morning.

And all the time, Chickie has that 50-pound duffel bag of beers slung over his shoulder; a seemingly endless supply of Pabst cans he keeps hurling around like friendly grenades, seemingly aware that no matter how many cans he passes out, in the next scene there will be just as many as there were when he left New York. (Note to the continuity department: I’m no barfly, but I’m pretty sure if you hurl a sack full of full beer cans into a foxhole and then start popping them open, there’s going to be a lot of foam spraying around.)

Efron is a friendly presence as Chickie, although with his big bushy mustache I kept thinking of a young John Stossel. It’s always a good thing when Russell Crowe turns up (on screen, anyway), and he’s excellent here as a grumpy, grizzled war photographer. As one who knew more than my share of those guys back in the days of 35mm film, I can assure you Crowe has the whole routine down pat — a vest lumpy with film canisters, multiple cameras strapped around his neck, head on a swivel, constantly checking his exposures between shots.

Farrelly, on the other hand, appears to have less commitment to the film’s vision than his cast. He seems to think he needed to make two movies here: the funny caper flick about a guy who humps all over Vietnam giving beer to his buddies and the serious film that depicts, with mounting indignation, the horror of battle and the folly of war. So he keeps switching between the two, catching his audience in a crossfire of conflicting tones.

But Farrelly need look no further than films like Good Morning Vietnam and Mr. Roberts to understand that a skilled filmmaker can weave a tapestry of light and dark; of grim laughter amidst the carnage of war.

Besides, in the whole human comedy, is not war the darkest joke of all?

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