Don’t say you’ve seen it all with movies based on true stories. Many of them are brilliant. Some can be unbelievable. But few are as absurd and as stupid as The Greatest Beer Run Ever.
The enticing true story of the film certainly carries most of its dramatic heft, that of John “Chickie” Donahue (Zac Efron) accepting a challenge to sneak into Vietnam during the war and offer messages of support to his fellow friends and neighbors by offering them beer from back home. Surely, it’s an idea that will get him killed, or maybe, as one character says it at one point, he is simply too stupid to get killed.
With such a straightforward outrageous premise, The Greatest Beer Run Ever had an easy road to win us over, to make us laugh, and to be reminded for the nth time on how terrible war is and how the Vietnam War dealt an enormous blow to the United States. The problem is we are saddled with Peter Farrelly in the director’s chair.
Four years after Green Book won Best Picture, Farrelly goes bigger and sillier with this film, but time and time again, his sensibilities clash with the material. Despite his best intentions – and you can feel he is making a well-intentioned film with a positive message – he simply doesn’t hit hard enough on the style or the commentary.
For much of the film’s runtime,, Farrelly (with co-writers Brian Currie & Pete Jones) prioritizes the logistics behind Chickie getting into Vietnam and talking to several authorities while trying to hide the fact that he’s just an ordinary civilian. Furthermore, he prioritizes these scenes to be the source of the film’s humor. Not only is the film just not funny or sharp enough in the writing, but it’s difficult to laugh at the situation when you are not rooting for the lead. The problem isn’t Efron – he does the best he can in making his character likable – but in the script’s Point A to Point B narrative being completely held by Chickie’s personality and stupidity.
You’ll be sitting throughout the second act waiting for Chickie to get a reality check, to get thrown into the violent chaos of war and realize that his stupid idea is not a joke and his patriotism back home may have been blinded. But even when these moments come, they’re held back by Farrelly’s creative decisions. Though Efron has what it takes to handle the script’s heavier moments, the film repeatedly resorts to using bizarre needle drops to evoke a mushy sentimentality. The tone almost never works, resulting in the film looking like it’s making light of weighty situations. With the directing never aligning with the content shown on screen, the first half of The Greatest Beer Run Ever is certainly a chore to get through.
It’s not until the second half, when Russell Crowe’s war photographer character shows up, that the film finally picks up the pace and has the decency to stop messing around with its subject matter. A sequence that takes place in Saigon will have you at the edge of your seat, as our characters are thrown into immediate danger. The production value and intensity of the handheld camerawork will make you wish that the film was more about Efron and Crowe together as a pair – with the limited time they have together on screen, not only do they speak the film’s talking points out loud, but they have terrific chemistry doing it together.
Chugging along into the third act, The Greatest Beer Run Ever finally gets some of its political talking points across, but if you’ve seen how Farrelly handled racism in Green Book, you can pretty much guess how topics like war and patriotism and division are handled here. But even Green Book at least tried to explore ideas like self-dignity. Here, Farrelly doesn’t say much past “this war is not like WWII. It’s much worse.” The film doesn’t even have the conviction to separate the difference between supporting soldiers vs. supporting foreign policy, an idea that another film playing at TIFF right now – The Inspection – touched on quite nicely.
It is so clear from the get-go that The Greatest Beer Run Ever wants to use a true story to offer some insight about war and blind nationalism. Time and time again, the film flirts with questioning Chickie’s mission. Despite his noble efforts, it doesn’t make a dent in what’s actually happening in the country, in both countries. Most of all, he’s not even contributing. He’s just handing out beer to the real soldiers, the real heroes who are dying every day for a cause that has been manipulated and lied about. The tragedy of it all is the film has all the content in place, all right there for an angry director to hit home on.
But Farrelly wants to be a sweet guy. He’s more about the intentions, the lessons learned, the emotional journeys that neighborly folks go through. The more the film goes on, the more it becomes clear that the filmmakers are afraid of offending one side of the political spectrum than the other. We’re left with a perfectly adequate film that will appeal to the masses. It’s put together well on a technical level, with a couple good performances. It’s too bad that when you make a film so strictly for the masses, you end up with something so neutral, so tame, and so inconsequential.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Apple Original Films will release The Greatest Beer Run on September 30 on AppleTV+.