In his last film, Green Bookdirector Peter Farrelly hoped to see racism solved with a road trip. The movie went on to win several Oscars, including a best picture, despite a storm of controversy and negative sentiment enshrouding it. For his follow-up film, The Greatest Beer Run Ever (in limited theaters and on AppleTV+ September 30), Farrelly heads back into the political sphere, but with a more universally acceptable premise: war is bad.
That is, essentially, the lesson learned by the hero of the film, Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron), a real-life mook from Inwood in northern Manhattan, who, 1968, traveled in Vietnam on a merchant marine ship to bring his enlisted buddies some beer. In the film, Donohue and his local cohort are staunchly pro-America, and will not brook any criticism of the war effort nor the politicians who, we now know (and many knew then), lied their way into a bloody, murderous catastrophe. Donohue refuses to accept that American leadership could ever do something so evil, which means he has a pretty rosy idea of what his friends are going through on the battlefield.
Hence his rash journey to the front lines, where an amiable what-could-go-wrong attitude gradually hardens into a realization that nothing about this campaign is noble. We’ve seen this framing before, but usually it’s a gung-ho soldier who has the harshest of awakenings about what he once thought would be a righteous adventure. It’s a bit different when viewed through the perspective of this goofy, if surprisingly resourceful, civilian. Chickie is, perhaps, a better reflection of a national consciousness as it slowly turned against the war, as all of its annihilation seemed to yield no results but senseless loss. There’s a poignancy in that, lightly as Farrelly may approach the film.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is an odd title for this story—“greatest” could be read as grimly ironic, but it more likely represents a lingering affection for Chickie’s dangerous odyssey. A movie that is, consciously or not, about the blitheness with which Americans conceptualize faraway wars—especially those in countries populated by people who aren’t white—nonetheless struts around with a ring-a-ding smirk. There’s a clash of tones in The Greatest Beer Run Evera battle between its desired mood and the implications of its message.
And yet, the film is perhaps woefully entertaining, a jaunty episodic ramble through a horror that keeps the scariest and most gruesome facts outside the frame. That’s a dodge, certainly, and puts the film in the company of other work that prizes good feelings over historical and social responsibility. But there are other films about the Vietnam War that come closer to a proper framing, so I suppose we can let this weird true story slide. Or, at least, I could.
Any willingness to give The Greatest Beer Run Ever a pass might largely be credited to Efron, who has evolved from a teen heartthrob into an intriguing, decidedly grownup actor. He still has some of that apple-pie Disney charisma, but it’s now shaded by a hard-won maturity. There’s a haunted quality in his eyes that has proven useful in fare as varied as the raucous comedy neighbors and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vilea movie about Ted Bundy that was pretty bad except for Efron’s darkly beguiling turn in the lead role.
in The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Efron effectively balances Chickie’s affable, ne’er-do-well charm and his stubborn, sometimes angry insistence that everything is as it should be. He’s quintessentially American in that way, willfully blinkered and quick to lash out at—or, at least, dismiss—anyone who questions the rigidity of his worldview. Chickie’s arc in the movie could, in some perverse way considering all the death surrounding him, be viewed as a coming of age, a dawning comprehension that the world is bigger and more complicated and oftentimes crueler than his limited outlook ele has allowed. Efron builds to that epiphany of sorts in subtle shifts, his sunny mien dimming with each revelation.
Chickie is joined for a team by a hardened war journalist, Arthur (Russell Crowe), who gives Chickie a solemn crash course in the realities of war and government coverups. As the Tet Offensive begins, Chickie and Arthur dash through Saigon, dodging bullets and explosions, trying to find safety. Well, Arthur is also trying to get the story, snapping photographs of bodies and buildings that have been laid to waste.
At the end of their ordeal, safe haven found in the wreckage of an American military base, Chickie assumes that Arthur will want to return to America with him. But Arthur firmly reminds Chickie that he is in Vietnam for a purpose, and that a dire matter such as this can’t just be fled and forgotten. Chickie has no such mission—all the beer has been delivered—and so he goes home, weary and prickly with new understanding. Who knows how long he maintained, or if he soon slipped back into the easy jingoism of comfortable living. Farrelly shows us the formative experience, but only a little of its consequences. Perhaps too much consideration of that would make the whole thing seem something less than great.