It’s hard to tell if The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a comedy that wants to be a drama or a drama that wants to be a comedy. Of course, a film can be both. This one, alas, is neither. The tale of John “Chickie” Donohue, an Inwood, New York, resident who, in late 1967, decided to take a duffel bag full of beer to his buddies serving in Vietnam, Peter Farrelly’s film is based on a wild true story — this is both the most fascinating thing about the picture and its biggest problem. The filmmakers seem so impressed with the fact that all this really happened that they haven’t done the work necessary onscreen to convince us that something like this could really happen.
We see Chickie (Zac Efron) in the film’s early scenes hanging out at his local Irish bar where the war in Vietnam occasionally shows up as an upsetting news item. “Bringing dead soldiers, guys with no arms or legs, into our living rooms is not helping no one,” says the bar’s gruff owner, a veteran called the Colonel (Bill Murray actually playing someone other than himself this time). “If they had showed the Battle of the Bulge on TV, we’d have quit after three days.” Even though several of Chickie’s friends are serving abroad, his understanding of the war is basic and unquestioning; at one point, he gets into a fight with a group of protesters (among them, his sister) not because of any firmly held beliefs but because he’s just learned that a good friend has been declared missing in action and doesn’t want to believe his friend may have died in vain.
Chickie has all the surface qualities of a potentially interesting and relatable character, but the script, by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Pete Jones, keeps everything strictly at the level of dialogue. “There’s a lot of things you say you’ll do but you never get around to doing,” one of Chickie’s pals tells him. But aside from one scene where he wakes up late for church, we never really get a sense of Chickie as a layabout or an unreliable dullard. Why does this matter? Because the film presents Chickie as having taken on this absurd challenge partly to show everybody that he isn’t useless and that he can, in fact, follow through on a promise. If the movie doesn’t care about its own protagonist’s motivations, what hope does the audience have? What are we even doing here, guy?
All that painfully expository dialogue probably looked great on the page to the agency readers and studio execs who skimmed through the script on its way to production, but at some point, somebody should probably have considered turning it into an actual movie. It’s not just the haphazard writing but the fact that Farrelly can’t seem to decide how to play any of it. A merchant mariner, Chickie shows up at the seafarers union office one afternoon and casually asks if any ships are departing for Vietnam, convinced that none will be. Sure enough, one is set to leave that evening. “But I doubt they need an oiler this late in the game,” he mutters, clearly hoping to be spared an actual trip to war-torn Southeast Asia. “Hey, you’re in luck!” Once in Saigon, Chickie realizes that “tourist” is an informal code among the military for “CIA,” so he rides that con for a while. This is the stuff of high-concept comedy — so easy, so nonchalant. Did it really happen this way? Who the hell knows? What matters is that it rings false onscreen, like an elaborate joke without a punch line.
As The Greatest Beer Run Ever proceeds, an idea does come into view, albeit foggily. One suspects that Farrelly wanted the film to start in one register and then move into another — a simplistic comic-surreal quest that slowly turns into a grim, complicated journey of disillusionment and self-discovery — so that the movie itself might, in a way, grow with Chickie. He will be transformed by what he sees in Vietnam, and the naïveté of the early scenes will be demolished as our hero inadvertently eases his way into hell. That is an intriguing structural concept, but the film loses the thread so early that it’s hard to appreciate the idea on any level beyond the theoretical. Because at some point someone has to commit to what’s happening onscreen to give the audience something to grasp onto, something to care about — an emotional engine, if you will.
Efron does come close, however. Chickie is a good part for him, and coming on the heels of this past May’s abysmal Firestarter, which the actor essentially walked through, The Greatest Beer Run Ever is welcome proof that he can run with the right material. Efron’s great power is his soulful imperturbability: That placid face of his can speak to ignorance and haziness, as well as bewilderment, while sometimes hinting at an inner vulnerability. So he does bring some dimension to the character, even as the picture fails to live up to his performance. And when nobody’s talking, The Greatest Beer Run Ever manages to muster some power. Late in the film, Chickie finds himself on a desolate road, wordlessly trying to befriend a young Vietnamese girl who looks at him in terror and pain. It’s a quietly eloquent moment of recognition and disappointment — the kind that reminds you of what much of the rest of the movie so sorely lacks.
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