Film-festival awards don’t usually have much lasting impact, but four years ago, when “Green Book” played at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the People’s Choice Award, it had a seismic effect. It set the film on what would become its road to Oscar glory. Since that turned out to be a very bumpy road, with many critics dumping on the film for what they perceived to be its outdated liberal race consciousness (not me — I thought “Green Book” was terrific), the Toronto award kept coming back into the conversation. It was used to signify the nature of the movie’s appeal — namely, that maybe this wasn’t a film destined to be embraced by the most elite levels of the establishment, but that it was one “the people” went for. And that’s just what ended up happening. (The people, in this case, including a great many Oscar voters.)
So tonight, when Toronto hosted the world premiere of “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” the first movie Peter Farrelly has directed since “Green Book,” you can bet that thoughts of that award were lingering in the air. What I can report, though, is that whatever awards “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” does or doesn’t win in Toronto, the film is not going to pull a repeat of the “Green Book” juggernaut.
That’s because this time the movie doesn’t deliver. It’s directed with the same brand of buoyant mainstream craftsmanship, as well as expert lensing (by Sean Porter), that made “Green Book” go down easy. But that movie was powered by a pair of world-class performances, and whatever your opinion of its politics, it had a witty and deftly structured buddy-road-movie script. It all added up.
“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” lumbers and meanders, and not just because the structure isn’t there. What we’re seeing, on a human level, is only half-interesting and rather slipshod. Like “Green Book,” “Greatest Beer Run” is based on a true story, but what Peter Farrelly responded to in that story translates, this time, into a token “relevant” boomer nostalgia that hasn’t been fully thought through.
Zac Efron, in plaid shirts and a thick dark mustache, plays John “Chickie” Donahue, a Marine Corps veteran and merchant seaman who is whiling away the days — and, indeed, his existence — living at his parents’ home in the working-class Inwood section of upper Manhattan. It’s 1967, and Chickie, who is an unabashed lunkhead, hangs out with his pals at the local bar, talking about all the friends they have from the neighborhood who are fighting in Vietnam. Chickie always makes a point of how much he supports the troops. So do his friends, and so does the Colonel (Bill Murray), a World War II veteran who tends the bar and insists that the soldiers in Vietnam are all heroes. But not everyone feels that way. Opposition to the war is on the rise, and Chickie’s sister, Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), is one of those who joins the local protests, complete with placards and the cliché classic “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
There’s a culture war going on, tearing families — and maybe the country – apart. Farrelly wants us to hear an echo of today’s culture war, but it doesn’t take long for that parallel to fade out of the movie. Because “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” has something more on its mind. Something momentous. Something morally and spiritually cleansing. Are you sitting down?
Chickie wants to bring a bunch of beers to his grunt buddies in Vietnam.
This does not strike us as a good idea. Unless, of course, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” was a comedy made in the ’80s starring Chevy Chase, in which case it would be a very good idea. But the story the movie tells did actually happen: In 1967, Chickie Donahue really did head over to Vietnam in a Merchant Marine ship, landing in Saigon, and attempt to go in country with a bag full of beer. But that doesn’t mean what happened to him is compelling. “Greatest Beer Run” tells what is basically the story of a quixotic whim laced with a fair amount of stupidity. And the film, weirdly enough, even understands this.
It doesn’t take long for Chickie to get to ‘Nam (the Merchant Marine cruise lasts two months, but only a moment of screen time), and early on, after having hitchhiked north, there’s a scene in which he lands at the base camp of his buddy Rick Duggan (Jake Picking), a soldier who must scurry through a combat zone just to meet him. Rick walks in, and Chickie flashes him a big grin and holds up a couple of beers, with the expectation that Rick is going to be thrilled to see him. Instead, Rick is pissed off. He just came running through a hail of bullets, and he wants to know: What the hell is Chickie doing? He doesn’t belong there. Rick doesn’t need a beer, and the whole thing sounds a little insane. We listen to this rant and think, “Okay, we weren’t nuts for feeling like this was a dumb idea.” But Chickie is obstinate in his cockeyed optimism, even when he’s being shot at in a foxhole with no weapon. He wants to see his friends! Including, hopefully, Tommy (Will Hochman), who has gone missing in action, but who Chickie is all but certain is going to show up. Doesn’t he want a beer?
Since Farrelly is too good a filmmaker to want to cut corners, much of “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” — are you picking up on the irony of the title? — is devoted to the logistics of how Chickie gets around Vietnam. Part of it is a running joke that sounds like it belongs in that Chevy Chase movie: Since Chickie has no military credentials, an officer assumes he’s with the CIA, and Chickie’s denial of that just plays as a conformation. And he keeps hitting that note. He gets whisked through ‘Nam — in planes, on choppers, in jeeps — based on the perception that he’s a powerful operative who has to be catered to.
Out in the countryside, though, he’s mostly at sea. And since the way the film is organized, he rarely connects with anyone for more than a few minutes, his odyssey has a tedious undertow. We know that even the soldier friends he wants to hook up with don’t care about seeing him (and why would they? They’re in the shit). So how invested can we be in whether he winds up meeting them?
Zac Efron is an actor I’ve come to admire, but in this movie he’s forced to play a guy we have to work to root for. It’s not that Efron is less than likable, but he plays Chickie with an easygoing myopic mindlessness that’s not the sort of thing that should be holding down the center of a movie. And since the film is episodic in a galumphing way, we have more than enough time to notice several howlers that are baked into it. Why, for instance, do the characters, who are all from New York, speak in Boston accents? I’m not kidding. The whole art of accent specificity has been so lost that to prepare for their roles, it sounds like the entire cast just went and studied a bunch of Ben Affleck movies.
Howler number two: Chickie keeps giving away the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon he has brought along in his bag. He gives them out in bunks, he hands them out on the road, he’s like the Santa Claus of brewskie. But after a while, all I could think was: How many beers does he have in that goddamn duffel bag? Did he borrow the bag from Mary Poppins? Beyond that, the film makes an egregious mistake in tone when Chickie is riding in a chopper, watching a Viet Cong soldier get interrogated (by an actual CIA operative), and the soldier gets tossed out of the chopper, plunging to his death…and before we can even react, the movie is playing “Cherish,” by the Association, on the soundtrack. Is this supposed to be ironic? Because it feels like the definition of tone-deaf.
If Chickie the beer whisperer isn’t really connecting with his friends in ‘Nam, then what is “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” about? I have bad news on that score: It’s about Chickie, who was gung-ho on the war, learning that Vietnam is the mess the protesters said it was, that LBJ and Gen. Westermoreland (who we see on TV) are lying, and that the whole system is lying. At a bar in Saigon, Chickie meets a handful of American journalists, notably a Look magazine correspondent played by Russell Crowe in a voice of deepest deep. They all cue him to “the public relations war,” and to how the U.S. government is using it to hide the truth about Vietnam. But Chickie has to see it for himself. And out in the combat zones, he does. As he puts it late in the film, he learns that unlike the chaos and slaughter of WWII, this is bad chaos and slaughter. So now he’s an expert! Unfortunately, that means “The Greatest Been Run Ever is really a lesson — in America’s lost innocence, and in why the war in Vietnam was a moral catastrophe — that none of us needs to learn.