The Greatest Beer Run is a toothless, dad-movie escapade that spares too little thought for the tragedy that surrounds its lighthearted story, rendering its attempts at pathos unsuccessful.
Well, after showing us that we can all just get along after all, and winning Best Picture for it, in Green Book, former gross-out pioneer Peter Farrelly returns to show us that maybe the Vietnam War wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in The Greatest Beer Run Ever, another allegedly true story that, like Farrelly’s last one, isn’t so much actively harmful as it is infuriatingly reductive and trite. Once again, in setting an allegedly simple story of friendship and loyalty against a backdrop that requires more than a little bit of nuance, to say the least, he’s wound up with a frequently saccharine and misguided little escapade.
It’s 1967 in New York, and perpetual layabout/on-and-off Merchant Marine John “Chickie” Donahue (Zac Efron) doesn’t seem to mind being an aimless barfly, and who could blame him? Well, for starters, his family, who is sick of him freeloading, and his buddies, who adore him but are tired of picking up all his bar tabs. What’s worse, some of them are getting shipped off to Vietnam, and more than one hasn’t been coming back. Chickie is pretty confident in his patriotism, bred into him by his community, and so when he catches his little sister out at a war protest, he becomes incensed at the lack of support for American boys fighting all the way over there, and decides to do something to boost morale. That’s right, he’s going to go to Vietnam with a duffel bag full of Pabst Blue Ribbon and give beers to his friends in the shit. Hijinks ensue.
Chickie hops on the next ship headed that way and finagles a few days shore leave to deliver what must be a case or two of the skunkiest PBRs in history. His first stop is LZ Jane, which he manages to arrive at after letting a series of bumbling grunts and officers believe he’s CIA and not to be questioned — this after being informed more than once that indeed the boys on the line have plenty of access to American beer. Along the way, he faces some stark truths about the conflict at hand, namely that the Vietnamese people aren’t such bad people (turns out, they just want to run their own country!) and that US soldiers aren’t so stoked about the war they’re prosecuting. To the movie’s vague credit, Chickie even witnesses an honest-to-God war crime when he ends up riding shotgun in a helicopter an actual CIA agent is using to throw captured prisoners out of. Unfortunately, this grave situation somehow manages to come off as a bit of a punchline.
Is Beer Run an attempt at some sort of bristling satire a la M*A*S*H? Maybe, but it frankly spares too little thought for the tremendous loss of life that surrounds its lighthearted story, despite repeated stabs at pathos (see, for instance, the plight of a Vietnamese crossing guard that Chickie befriends, the sort of token character than could only have one fate in a film like this). Also grating are the repeated lectures Chickie receives from a disillusioned war correspondent (Russell Crowe, innocent). Efron acquits himself well enough, even with an obnoxious New Yaawk accent, but he’s given so little to do beyond running around being either oblivious or surprised; it’s not a bad performance, but it’s certainly a monotonous one. In the end, it’s all very safe and profoundly daddish. What rankles isn’t the point of view, but that it’s all conceived to be quite intentionally toothless, to place the viewer within the retroactive safety of hindsight. Perhaps it’s for the best though, as it’s only this blandness that saves the film from being entirely gross.
You can currently catch Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever in theaters or streaming on Apple TV+.