By Lynn Venhaus
Dumbfounded, I can’t recall a recent movie that is as tone-deaf as “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
In 1967, John “Chickie” Donohue decides to track down his friends fighting in Vietnam and honor them with a Pabst Blue Ribbon for their service. When the pro-war Merchant Marine is confronted with the horrors of the conflict, he sees that the ‘real’ chaos is different than the ‘public relations’ portrait the powers-at-be are giving to the American people.
Director Peter Farrelly has followed up his Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser “Green Book” with another true story, although this one is harder to make palatable. Somehow, pairing a harrowing war drama with comedic elements doesn’t work, getting more head-scratching as it unfolds in 2 hours, 6 minutes.
This isn’t “M*A*S*H,” not even close. It is also a war depiction that we have seen multiple times, and with a much better story, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dunderheaded protagonist.
Merchant Marine and world-class slacker John “Chickie” Donohue lives in Inwood, a working-class enclave in northern Manhattan. Without thinking, he agrees to a scheme suggested by bar owner “The Colonel,” a World War II veteran played by Bill Murray.
The bar crowd at Doc Fiddler’s Tavern is pro-war, this being early in the escalation, and everyone’s dad or grandad fought in World War II, aka “The Good War.”
So, when The Colonel says he’d like to send the guys serving in ‘Nam a beer to thank them for their service, Chickie volunteers: “I could do that.”
Well, nobody thinks he can, so he doubles-down. Zac Efron’s grown on me as an actor, but he can’t make such an idiot, with far too much hubris, that likeable. He thinks he will just hitch-hike through enemy territory handing out beers on the front lines.
And when did New York accents sound like Boston Southees?
His duffle bag of beer seems to have an unlimited supply of warm, maybe stale, Pabst Blue Ribbon. As Russell Crowe, playing a war correspondent for Look magazine says: “They have beer here,” Chickie retorts “but not American beer!”
(My Uncle Eddie, a career Air Force officer, was at Tuy Hoa Air Base for a year in 1968, and I know they had beer. He wrote letters home talking about the guys unwinding.)
The soldiers from back home don’t exactly know what to think about this gesture. Some are glad to see him, some think its foolhardy to risk life and limb this way.
Because people think no one would be a tourist in a war zone, guys believe he is a CIA operative, so he gets around using military and media guides to help him.
Along the way, he sees intense action. The tail-end of his visit actually coincides with the Tet Offensive. (Another aside – I had a cousin in the Marines who was killed right before Christmas in 1967. I’m sure he would not have appreciated some lunkhead roaming around where he shouldn’t have been. This movie is rather offensive, I would think, to those who served honorably.)
Chicken comes home a changed man because he learns “war is hell.” He’s seen the guys who love the smell of napalm in the morning. Once a hawk, he starts to understand the anti-war sentiment
So, that’s the takeaway. He has an epiphany that LBJ, General Westmoreland and others in the government are lying about how well the war is going, which the media keeps pointing out to Chickie over bars in Saigon.
Does he deserve a round of applause, a medal? He not only put himself in harm’s way but endangered his buddies too.
He does tell the barflies that the chaos is not like the previous world war, and they should be more skeptical of what the U.S. brass is telling citizens.
At the end, he doesn’t become a peacenik like his sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), who is seen chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” earlier, but they come to an understanding.
Chickie’s harsh lesson is a good thing, and he’s endured the loss of several friends, which does tug at your heart strings — especially the flashbacks in which Will Hockmann plays Tommy, questioning if he did the right thing by signing up. He’s one missing in action early on, and it’s sad.
The other soldiers – just kids – making an impression are Jack Picking as Rick Duggan and Archie Renaux as Tom Collins.
Crowe lends gravitas as the jaded journalist, but he’s been given the “important” task of being the voice of reason – and he’s not in the film that much (neither is Murray).
Farrelly, in an attempt to have lightning strike twice, debuted this at the Toronto International Film Festival, hoping to be in contention for the Audience Award, just like “Green Book” did. Well, it didn’t win – Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film “The Fablemans” did.
The only awards I think this film might be considered for would be The Razzies, which honors the “worst.”
Farrelly’s used to success with low-brow humor, such as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” but in recent years, he’s moved into more ‘prestige’ picks that seem pretentious.
He stages some harrowing action scenes and shows how a jungle climate threw wrenches into things, as in long slithering insects.
Cinematographer Sean Porter’s work captures the madness that was an Asian country where you couldn’t tell the enemy from the supporters, and the dangers therein.
Just because this is based on a true story doesn’t mean it’s a sympathetic one to tell. There are so many WTH moments that it becomes painful to slog through. For instance, Chickie is riding in a helicopter. Another man is interrogating a Viet Cong operative. He tosses him out the chopper while The Association’s song “Cherish” plays.
Oh, the irony.
Farrelly co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones, based on the book by Chickie and J.T. Molloy. Did they not see that Chickie should have ‘read the room’ — or themselves?
The soundtrack is chock-full of groovin’ 60s hits, which is a plus when it’s used in context. But not suitable for a montage of dead soldiers in flag-draped coffins. Not sure it all fits or syncs well to the story, but sometimes it’s on the nose, punctuating a bizarre tale.
This buddy movie is a dud, and can’t quite blend the somber with the silly in an effective way.
“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is a 2022 war drama-comedy directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Bill Murray, Jack Picking and Will Hockmann. Rated R for language and some war violence. It is in theaters Sept. 30 and streaming on Apple TV+. Lynn’s Grade: C-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.