Political writers are broadly recognized for having the absolute worst movie takes, but, in a minor stroke of irony, politicians often have surprisingly good ones, or they at least have good taste. Barack Obama’s annual best-of list gets coverage in the trades, for instance, and Mitt Romney made himself more popular among liberals in 2012 than his own constituency for citing O Brother, Where Art Thou? as his favorite film. More recently, John Kerry put on his own critic hat for the Boston Globe, still on a year-and-change search for a new chief Film Critic, in a piece about Peter Farrelly’s latest movie, The Greatest Beer Run Ever.
Kerry’s writing is dutiful and persuasive on experiential terms. Who’s more qualified to talk about a Vietnam War film than a Vietnam War vet? In terms of unpacking the film’s technique, though, the piece leaves much to be desired. Kerry understands the message, but it’s the messenger that poses a problem. Farrelly is, credit where due, an Oscar-level director, but he’s also an easy mark for fabrications, which is why Green Book is an affront to good taste, and one of The Greatest Beer Run Ever’s central motifs: The truth. John “Chickie” Donohue (Zac Efron) is likewise a total sucker for feel-good bullshit. He buys the American military’s stories about Vietnam and communism and monumental tallies of V.C. ass getting kicked by the U.S. of A. And why not? The propaganda goes down as smoothly as macro-brewed beer.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever coolly confronts Chickie with a daunting existential question: What if all those stories are bald lies? No way, says Chickie. Screw those pinko hippies protesting the war out in the streets, defaming America’s troops; he’s so fired up about the disrespect shown to his neighborhood pals fighting abroad, some drafted into service, others encouraged to serve voluntarily, that, after a little casual egging on by his neighborhood pals at home, Chickie decides he’s going to inveigle his way into Vietnam with a duffel full of Pabst, hit up each base where he has friends stationed, and hand ‘em frosty ones as his affable, lunkheaded way of thanking them for their service.
An idiotic gesture? Certainly! But is the gesture well received? Not really, no! It’s the Vietnam War. There are no rules, as Walter Sobchack snidely lectures Donny Kerabatsos in The Big Lebowski, and that applies to combat as well as gratitude.
Like Green Book, The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a story about one man blithely strolling into others’ lives, and how bearing witness to their travails forces him to reassess his siloed worldview. Unlike Green Book, however, it isn’t racist or self-serving, or, at least speaking to the latter, not to the same extent. Farrelly’s movie, which he co-wrote by committee with Brian Currie and Pete Jones, is, surprise surprise, based on Donohue’s memoir, which he similarly co-wrote with gossip columnist J.T. Molloy. It’d be shocking if Donohue wasn’t consulted at some point during The Greatest Beer Run Ever’s production, though fair is fair: He doesn’t have a producer credit on the movie. Still, if Farrelly drew on Donohue’s own words about his extraordinary, too-wild-not-to-be-true story, then suffice to say that the adaptation serves Donohue’s legend to an admittedly unquantifiable extent. That’s okay, too. Who among us wouldn’t want to be represented on screen by Efron?
The problem is that Farrelly as a director of Serious Cinema is only half of what Efron is as an actor who can basically do whatever the hell he wants careerwise: He’s all surface, and the surface is bumpy. Efron, meanwhile, has plenty going on under the hood. When The Greatest Beer Run Ever lets him down for want of meaningful reflection on what it takes to change an American’s mind on their country’s role as the world’s stern parent, he still has his charm, physical presence and knack for playing dumb; he has a ridiculous physique too, and even if he’s done chasing that toxic ideal, he remains far hotter than most mortal men.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever puts that body to use dodging CGI bullets, running from CIA spooks, and sweating profusely beneath thin layers of dirt; Chickie’s filth is a reminder that his plan is half-cocked. But the movie he’s in feels even less planned out, in the abstract sense that it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like television. It looks like television, too, but appended by about 30 different era-appropriate needle drops, maybe to help maintain the mood and lend authenticity to a movie made in New Jersey. Where Efron tries gamely, Farrelly doesn’t. The Greatest Beer Run Ever’s swelling and schmaltzy character is a replacement for craftsmanship appropriate to a picture of its scope. Every design choice feels small. It’s either a testament to Russell Crowe’s stature or a knock against Farrelly’s meager gifts as a director that Crowe looms largest over the rest of the movie.
All else is oddly minimized. Chickie is a man out of place and out of his depth. Vietnam’s war-torn horrors should feel colossal. But like Kerry’s writing, they feel dutifully staged. Even the emotional beats between Efron and his supporting cast—Jake Picking, Archie Renaux, Kyle Allen and Will Ropp, Chickie’s enlisted pals—don’t have the proper scale. Worse, Farrelly simply uses the movie as a template for laying down commentary ripped from today (about the power and necessity of truth in journalism) over Chickie’s story and Vietnam’s history. In a film seemingly made of lazy choices, this is the laziest, and most craven, of all. On paper, Kerry’s assessment of The Greatest Beer Run Ever is correct. But in actuality this critical sentiment is glossed over. Farrelly’s too busy making a Big Important Movie instead of making a movie that matters.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writer: Peter Farrelly, J.T. Molloy, Brian Currie
Starring: Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Jake Picking, Archie Renaux, Kyle Allen, Will Ropp
Release Date: September 30, 2022 (Apple TV+)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.