'The Greatest Beer Run Ever': Zac Efron Delivers in Peter Farrelly's Lukewarm Comedy-Drama
On paper, a Peter Farrelly directed film titled The Greatest Beer Run Ever sounds like it would be more in line with the goofy comedies that he made with his brother for the better part of his career. However, in a post-Green Book world, it is clear that Farrelly is in a new phase as a filmmaker, and is more interested in making more dramatic, Oscar-friendly fare. Green Book ended up becoming a surprise hit, and rode a wave of success that led to it winning the Oscar for Best Picture. It makes perfect sense that Farrelly would want to replicate that success with his follow-up, and it's not surprising at all that what we get with The Greatest Beer Run Ever is not too far off from Green Book. Where Green Book was a tale about Civil Rights, Beer Run focuses on the Vietnam War, and the horrors associated with it. I would argue that Farrelly sensibilities seem more suited to the latter, but in both cases, he paints with a broad brush, and most of the film's serious moments come across so heavy handed. It's more or less what you would expect a Vietnam War-set film directed by Peter Farrelly would be, but it works better than I would have expected, and the film as a whole isn't half bad, all things considered.
Based on a true story, this film follows John "Chickie" Donahue (Zac Efron), a working class man living in New York. The year is 1967, and the Vietnam War is on everyone's mind. For Chickie and his buddies, it is especially relevant, as many of their friends are fighting in the war. One night, at a bar that Chickie and his buddies frequent, the bar's owner, known only as The Colonel (Bill Murray) suggests that he would like to hand-deliver some beers to the American soldiers in Vietnam. Chickie hears this and gets the idea to actually go to Vietnam to deliver some beers to his friends in the military. From there, he goes on an unbelievable journey, and learns about the atrocities of war in the process.
Most of the film's best moments come from when it is focused on Chickie's quest, which is by far the most interesting thing about it. This is mostly because you can't help but feel like he will find himself in some serious danger at various points, and that some moments seem so farfetched that you're left wondering if they actually happened. Unfortunately, certain parts of the journey do basically feel like you're watching Zac Efron Forrest Gump his way through the Vietnam War. He gets to see the war from different perspectives, and seems to happen upon various situations a little too conveniently. Perhaps this isn't too far off from what the actual Chickie experienced, but it just feels a bit lazily written in that regard.
Speaking of the writing, the film's script has a lot of the same issues that I had with Green Book throughout it. Both films seek to examine larger themes through the scope of a lesser known bit of history, but they also end up providing a heavy-handed message that barely scratches the surface. Green Book's message boils down to little more than "racism is bad, but friendship is good" and Beer Run's message boils down to little more than "war is bad, but friendship is good". With Beer Run, Farrelly hammers in the point that war is violent and more horrendous than the average person might realize so many times that it feels redundant. It doesn't help that a lot of what we see is nothing new, and feels like a retread of elements from other Vietnam movies. I do like that it at least devotes some time to the journalists that were in Vietnam during the time, as that feels refreshing, but it feels like Farrelly isn't always sure what to do with these scenes, so they don't have as big of an impact on the film as a whole. So many of the dramatic elements in the film have so little nuance, that they either feel too maudlin or shallow. This isn't always the case, as some moments do land fairly well, but more often than not, they just don't fully work. In the hands of a more capable director and more capable writers, this film might have had a bit more to say and be able to hit the emotional beats a little more effectively. I will say that Farrelly does do a decent job of balancing the drama and comedy in the film, and unsurprisingly, the comedic elements do work pretty well overall. The broadness of the film does make it more of a crowdpleaser, but it also robs it of any significant depth it might have had.
However, the film does get a slight boost from Zac Efron's performance. He is so dialed in throughout the film, and he embodies Chickie's unearned confidence so well. He also nails some of the more emotionally demanding scenes of the film, and some of the film's best moments come courtesy of his performance. It's easily one of his best performances, and gives him a chance to show his range as an actor. I also really enjoyed Russell Crowe's performance as Arthur Coates, a photojournalist who Chickie meets in Saigon. It's a role that could have easily been forgettable, but in Crowe's hands, it ends up being one of the best things about the film. Crowe captures the character's grizzled demeanor perfectly, and the scenes where he is acting opposite Efron are some of my favorite in the whole film. He gives the film a little extra juice right when it's starting to wear a little thin, and while he's not in all that much of the film, he gives his all when he does show up.
It's not surprising that The Greatest Beer Run Ever is rather surface-level in how it explores its themes, but I can't deny that the film is at least somewhat enjoyable. Its heavy-handed messaging drags it down quite a bit, but the film gets by on its wild premise, and a pair of great performances from Zac Efron and Russell Crowe. I don't think it will have the same success story that Green Book did, but it is a crowdpleaser through and through, so I can see it attracting a decent sized audience when it hits streaming. This film didn't change my mind on Peter Farrelly as a director, but it is more or less what I was expecting from him, so I can't say that I was really disappointed. It does go on a bit longer than it should, and some of the dramatic moments don't land, but it's still a rather likable film, and one that managed to surprise me.