With new movie The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Apple TV+ seems anxious to pick up some easy awards from industry insiders who prefer heartwarming tales of friendship and broad gestures over strong ideas and nuance.
Zac Efron leads an ensemble cast as John “Chickie” Donohue, a guy going nowhere in life during the Vietnam War who decides he’s going to finally do something with himself. Chickie’s crazy bid for respectability — via a wild trip to the war zone, toting beer for the demoralized troops — provides hope for his whole neighborhood back home.
Director Peter Farrelly, who won the Best Picture Oscar in 2019 for the risible Green Book, returns to the well of hopelessly condescending middlebrow emptiness with The Greatest Beer Run Ever.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever review
It’s 1967, and John “Chickie” Donohue is a failure. The part-time merchant marine is wiling away his life in his parent’s apartment, too lazy to go get another job, too drunk to be good at anything else. The only thing that sobers him up long enough to feel something is the constant news of the deaths of neighborhood guys in the Vietnam War.
Half of Chickie’s old friends from his corner of Inwood (the last neighborhood at the top of Manhattan) have enlisted or been drafted. When word gets back that his close friend Tommy (played by Will Hochman) has gone M.I.A. in the jungles of Vietnam, it really shakes up the rest of their stateside crew.
So one night after a few beers, Chickie decides he will do something about all this pain and sorrow. He’s gonna fill a duffle bag with warm cans of PBR, get a job on a merchant ship headed for Saigon, then travel around the country giving beers to his old friends.
Surely that’s the kind of fun-loving empty gesture everyone can get behind, right? But no. Chickie’s parents are livid and horrified. And his sister (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) desperately tries to talk him out of the trip. But once Tommy’s mother (Kristen Cary) gives Chickie a rosary to give to her son, he realizes he can’t back out. It’s off to Saigon for Chickie.
Finding his old crew overseas is going to be quite the task, though. He’s only got three days’ leave from his captain before his ride home heads back to the states. And Chickie’s old friends are stationed in four different places. It’s gonna take a lot of bullshitting and ingenuity to hit every spot without getting stopped by the Army (or killed) and still get back in time not to be stranded in Saigon.
War is a big crime scene
You like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can find very little impetus behind Peter Farrelly‘s shift from world’s most grotesque American comedy director to world’s most grotesque historical fiction director. As a comedy director, his movies with his brother Bobby (Kingpin, Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene, Stuck on You) made money, were appreciated by a fair number of critics for their colorful mise-en-scène and abrasive style, and turned the two Farrellys into a household name.
Turning away from that to make Green Book — a truly hideous buddy comedy based on fact but, crucially, told and approved by only one party — strikes me as being as cynical and calculating as Green Book itself.
Green Book’s message was that a goony mob lackey bigot and a classically trained, erudite, gay, black piano player aren’t so different after all. Despite the film taking place during the time of Jim Crow and lynchings, we’re meant to find it heartwarming that these two guys from different worlds came together to enjoy a slice of pizza.
History, over easy
Recent Apple TV+documentary Sidney chronicled Sidney Poitier’s falling out with his community when he started making well-meaning but inert and airless dramas about tolerance. That was in the late 1960s, the time in which Greatest Beer Run is set.
If people found Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner patronizing then, how the makers of Green Book talked themselves into an even more toothless version of the same story in 2018 I’ll simply never know. (I only watched Green Book because they put it on in the waiting room for jury duty selection back in 2019, which made the most annoying day of my year even worse.)
It’d be tempting to say that Greatest Beer Run is a step back in the right direction for Farrelly, but it’s just more of the same. (There’s a greater volume of jokes in this movie than in Green Book, but unfortunately none of them are funny.)
The camera work is fine. I like the way director of photography Sean Porter films New Jersey in autumn, though he’s completely lost in Thailand — neither New York nor Vietnam make actual appearances in the film.
And you have to give music supervisors Manish Raval and Tom Wolfe credit — there’s not a single Creedence Clearwater Revival song on the Greatest Beer Run Ever soundtrack. Most of the tunes don’t line up perfectly with the date of the movie, but it’s not every day you hear Vashti Bunyan on the soundtrack to a war film, so I accept the slip.
Green Book 2 … in Vietnam
Mostly, however, we’re watching Green Book 2. Again we’re in the past. And again we’re learning lessons that most thinking adults haven’t needed to learn since … oh … roughly 1972. My great uncle fought in Vietnam, and he knew before he came back it was a trumped-up, resource-mining expedition with an armed and expendable security detail.
Watching Zac Efron‘s character learn over and over and over AND OVER that hey maybe this war isn’t the just and right thing to be doing is as big a waste of time as bringing room-temp beer to soldiers instead of, say, a plane ticket home. Efron isn’t a bad actor, but he’s completely adrift in this role. He doesn’t know whether to play Chickie as the dumbest kid in class or an embittered conservative old before his years.
The movie’s worst moment comes when Chickie finally returns home to confront “the colonel” (Bill Murray), the craggy old vet who runs his favorite neighborhood watering hole. Chickie puts his foot down when the old man insists that wars are “controlled chaos” but they’re worth it. Chickie defiantly says that it really doesn’t seem all that controlled over there … in fact, he’d go so far as to say it doesn’t seem like we’re saving the world … like we did in Korea, World War II and World War 1.
I waited the whole film for that bit of backpedaling, and it didn’t disappoint.
War is definitely hell
Korea was as much a meaningless anticommunist boondoggle as Vietnam. The Allies’ entry into World War II didn’t matter half as much as the Russians. And the United States didn’t enter World War 1 until it became clear that Woodrow Wilson couldn’t keep profiting from it without committing troops.
It takes a special kind of cold cynicism to say that America has ever “saved the world,” even in a movie about how a guy learns that the Vietnam War and the C.I.A. are bad, actually. (In what’s maybe the most wretchedly cynical thing I’ve seen in a movie this year, Chickie sees a U.S. operator drop a Vietcong prisoner out of a helicopter in a scene set to a jaunty pop tune.)
The Greatest Beer Run Ever has no conviction at all about what it means to examine America’s role in the Vietnam War because it still comes to the conclusion that sometimes war is the only answer. a feature length adaptation of the
… unless you’re gunning for an Oscar
Things somehow get more soggy and saccharine than you would expect. When Chickie reports back to Mrs. Minogue that her son Tommy is really dead and not missing, she comforts him. She says that what Chickie did — going to Vietnam (and witnessing the Tet Offensive, in a particularly Forrest Gump-esque turn of events) and checking on their boys — it was good for everyone in the neighborhood.
I’m not really sure how, though, since this film is really about the true story of a dropout who went to Vietnam for a few weeks to get overtaxed soldiers drunk during the time they most need to be alert. (The movie waffles every scene about whether he’s doing the right thing or he’s just a well-meaning fool who needs to grow up.)
But hey, The Greatest Beer Run Ever can’t possibly leave you feeling like Chickie didn’t do the right thing. After all, why make this two-hour movie about him if it wasn’t important?
It wasn’t, though. It really, really wasn’t. Russell Crowe’s war correspondent at one point tells Chickie that war is a big crime scene, but this film, a feature length adaptation of that Kendal Jenner Pepsi commercial, evidently disagrees. Sometimes, war’s a place you can learn and grow, and sometimes you save the world. Sitting through a movie this lifeless and having that message thrown at you seems a little like fighting in a war and being rewarded with warm beer for your trouble.
Watch The Greatest Beer Run Ever on Apple TV+
The Greatest Beer Run Ever premieres Friday on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.