As the good book – by which I mean Cheers – teaches us, beer is the currency of compassion. A can of suds won’t put you back more than a few bucks, and yet when given from one person to another, a drink represents the ultimate token of goodwill. When someone’s having a terrible day, you buy them a consolation beer. Someone does you a kindness, you buy them a gratitude beer. You do wrong by someone else, you buy them an apology beer. It requires so little and means so much, a simple gesture of shared humanity that puts a little light back in a cold, indifferent world. Or maybe that’s just what the beginning of a good buzz feels like.
Channeling this spirit of boozy benevolence is the main thing going for The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Peter Farrelly’s otherwise deficient follow-up to his flummoxing best picture recipient Green Book. And just as that film used a Black man’s suffering to lead a bigot to the revelatory epiphany that racism is actually pretty bad, this one, another unlikely road trip through a dangerous politicized battleground leavened by mild guy-to-guy comedy, takes the pain of an entire nation as fodder for a jingo’s realization that war may not be so great after all. Farrelly specializes in gracelessly teaching his audience things they already know, but where his Oscar-festooned feelgood buddy movie had a novel subject and tour de force from Mahershala Ali, his latest commits itself to regurgitating every Vietnam cliche with the laziest possible visual diction, led by an emotionally overextended Zac Efron.
He’s a fine fit for 80% of what John “Chickie” Donohue has to do in the course of this retelling of his real-life exploits delivering warm Pabst Blue Ribbons to his buddies from New York’s Inwood neighborhood stationed in Vietnam. As a civilian merchant marine with a couple of days in the combat zone before his ride ships out, he has to talk his way through a locked-down country crawling with people interested in killing him. He gets by because he’s using more than his wits, which are considerable; he figures out how to score rides between checkpoints after getting hip to the fact that because his mission is so difficult to believe, everyone assumes he’s CIA with a bad cover. But for the most part, the servicemen with whom he crosses paths cut him a break because he’s got the face and manner of Zac Efron, a likable jock who just wants to crack a brewski and make friends. The actor’s natural charm only gets him so far, however, the limits of his abilities visible every time he squinches up his face or dully goes blank to convey that it is now time to have some feelings.
He’s tasked with conveying a full-fledged metamorphosis of the soul as Chickie, though it’s a more manageable arc than Viggo Mortensen’s one-eighty on prejudice in the role of Tony Lip. As machine-gunned villages flood the TV stations, Chickie refuses to watch and peacenik protesters welcome his sister (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, yes, daughter to Andy) to their ranks, he digs in his heels on his blinkered notion of patriotism, yelling about the media’s negative skew with his buddies and the bartender (Bill Murray) at their regular dive. It’s not necessarily inaccurate that some people cannot conceive of empathy in the abstract and must see strife up close and personal to muster it, but Chickie’s slow pivot still feels like stating the obvious. Maybe his conclusions about the disordered chaos and inhumane pillaging of the land, received from a rumpled photojournalist (Russell Crowe) knocking back whiskies in a Saigon bar, only feel so matter-of-fact because every Vietnam movie ever made got there first.
At least the clear antecedents put some firepower behind their depictions of senselessness, more than Farrelly can say of his path-of-least-resistance film-making. Excepting only one haunting shot of a body falling from a helicopter until it vanishes into the canopy of trees, there’s nothing authentic enough to inspire the kind of transformative horror absorbed by Chickie. The soundtrack rounds up every played-out Nam-pop cut to the point that you notice the For What It’s Worth and Time Has Come Today-shaped holes; some sets appear incomplete, traces of 2022 visible under the period dressing. (A friend noted a modern airport terminal peeking out from the back of one shot.) The only thing real is the final insight that supporting the troops does not mean supporting the conflicts they’re made to fight, which could be of use to some theoretical news-averse Apple TV subscribers. But when this lesson has been delivered with such a pat lack of conviction, what manner of ornery war hawk could ever take it seriously?
The Greatest Beer Run Ever screened at the Toronto film festival and is available on Apple TV+ on 30 September