The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Zac Efron stars in Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever; courtesy of AppleTV+

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It’s always nice when a movie turns out not to be reactionary garbage. That was my fear about The Greatest Beer Run Ever, the true story of a Vietnam-era schlub who, concerned his enlisted friends are being demoralized by antiwar protests back home, travels as a civilian to the war zone to bring them each a warm beer. What sounds like a harmless fable has sharp real-world implications. The demonization of social justice activists remains a reliable right-wing tactic to this day, and the cultural divide the Vietnam War exacerbated is still relevant. The presence of Peter Farrelly (Green Book) behind the camera and muscles-with-eyes Zac Efron in front of it didn’t inspire confidence that such a volatile subject would be treated with nuance.

In reality, reactionary garbage might have been preferable to what ends up on screen. At least it’s an ethos. The Greatest Beer Run Ever tips its cap to both hawks and doves, and ends up saying almost nothing. The problems begin with Chickie Donohue (Efron), an empty vessel of a character who decides to embark on his noble-idiotic quest less out of an earnest desire to support the war effort and more from guilt about leading a meaningless life. “Everybody’s doing something,” he says by way of explanation. “I’m doing nothing.” 

The role is a natural fit for Efron, whose vacuousness is an asset when playing a serial killer (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) or a clueless frat bro (Neighbors). Farrelly, an established director of comedies, mines Efron’s vacuousness for solid laughs in the film’s first half, when Chickie’s naivete about the realities of war clashes with his mission. He’s not much brighter than Lloyd Christmas from Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber. When he is mistaken for a CIA agent, he responds, “CIA? Like James Bond?” Chickie is shocked to learn it’s not safe for him to hitchhike through the Vietnamese jungle, and he giggles in delight as his friend rushes back to base through a hail of bullets because he has been told he has a special visitor. Entirely devoid of politics or principle, Chickie’s ignorance is almost cleansing in its comic purity.

The material is there for a goofy war satire, but Farrelly is an Oscar winner now, and that means The Greatest Beer Run Ever needs to turn into a serious film about human suffering. Through a series of missteps, Chickie gets stuck in Vietnam just as the Battle of Saigon begins. Tagging along with a war photographer (Russell Crowe, lending gravitas), he makes his way through the city-as-battlefield, getting a closer view of the war than he planned. Here, Efron’s emptiness is a hindrance. Farrelly films the atrocities with competence, but they are always capped with the same soul-sucking shot of Efron’s blank face. It’s supposed to signify a profound transformation from the horrors of war, but all that’s really there is a chiseled jaw and an absurdly well-trimmed mustache. 

A pretty boy is an easy target, but the blame here lies with Farrelly and whoever convinced him this was a better use of his time than making Kingpin 2. With Green Book and The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Farrelly is pitching himself as a return to the directors of the postwar era, when studios made big, important movies about social issues with major movie stars. Those films appealed to the monoculture, but we don’t have one anymore, which is why Farrelly’s milquetoast approach feels so off-putting. Over the course of his adventure in Vietnam, Chickie learns that war is hell, the government doesn’t always tell the truth, and that journalism is, um, important. It might have been revelatory in 1968, but those conclusions feel embarrassingly simplistic in the age of drone warfare and internet conspiracy theories. The Greatest Beer Run Ever is exactly what it’s trying to be, and that’s the problem. It’s not bad. It’s just old-fashioned. 

The Greatest Beer Run Ever premieres on AppleTV+ on Sept. 30.