Longtime comedy writer/director Peter Farrelly duped a lot of people – though not this critic – with his first attempt at drama, 2018’s Green Book, for which he won Oscars for both Best Original Screenplay and, astoundingly, Best Picture. His follow-up film, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, is another film based on little-known history, with much stronger results.
Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron) is kind of a ne’er-do-well in a 1967 Manhattan neighborhood, living at home and going down to his local bar on a daily basis to drink with his friends. There, he, his friends, and bar owner Doc Fiddler (Bill Murray) commiserate over the fate of the local men who are getting injured or dying in the Vietnam War. Though they hate what the men face, they mostly agree that the soldiers are doing their patriotic duty.
On a drunken whim, Chickie – who has job as a merchant mariner – says he’s going to pay tribute to their friends by bringing them beer from back home. By hook or by crook, he actually manages to get over to Vietnam on a supply ship. But what starts out as a fun lark for the genial Chickie turns into an education about what war is actually like, how his friends are handling their deployments, and that governments may not be always telling the truth.
Co-written with Farrelly by Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones, the film is a tale of two halves. The first 45 minutes or so is pretty goofy, as it sets up the story by showing the growing divide about the war, a serious topic that’s undercut by almost every character utilizing an over-the-top New York accent. Chickie’s apparent lack of concern about heading into a war zone also rubs the wrong way.
But the film’s shift in tone once he gets to Vietnam is a welcome one, and helps to make sense of what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish in the beginning of the movie. As Chickie tries to track down the various guys from his neighborhood, his eyes are opened about the experience on the ground in a war. Chickie traveling in plain clothes gets him mistaken for a CIA agent, a falsehood he willingly goes along with until an encounter with a real CIA agent pulls the wool off his eyes once and for all.
Farrelly appears to have matured as a filmmaker in the past four years. While he went for overly simplistic conflict and just as facile resolution in Green Book, he gets down and dirty in this film. He and his co-writers don’t pay lip service to the bad parts of war; they put Chickie right there in the middle of it all, witnessing atrocities firsthand. He’s not a soldier, so they don’t try to overplay their hand, but they give the film just enough intensity that the changes he experiences don’t feel tossed off.
Of course, the film is “based on a true story,” so you know liberties were taken – would the number of beers he brought really last? – but they do an effective job of making eye-rolling moments relatively believable. Chickie’s interactions with his soldier friends have a good arc to them, as do his run-ins with in-country reporters like Coates (Russell Crowe). A late film sequence that finds the two of them running around Saigon while the city is under siege is one of the best the film has to offer.
Efron, save perhaps for his turn as Ted Bundy in a Netflix film, has never been known for his dramatic chops. This role gives him the best of both worlds, allowing him to let loose and dig deep in equal measures, and he makes the most of it. Relative unknowns play his various friends, with the ones playing soldiers coming off the best. Murray and Crowe provide contrasting color to the film, and each is effective in their small amount of screentime.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a nice step up for Farrelly and proof that there are still interesting ways to demonstrate that war is hell. The funny premise behind the film belies the seriousness with which it treats the larger issue at hand, a bait-and-switch that gives the story a gravitas you might not expect.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is now playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.