Early on in the experience of watching The Greatest Beer Run Ever, the most recent feature from writer-director Peter Farrelly since his 2018 film Green Book, we observe Zac Efron’s 26-year-old Chickie Donohue stumble upon an anti-war protest. It is a telling moment that marks the beginning of his half-baked plan to make an expedition to Vietnam with beer and gifts from home to counteract the supposedly negative influence of the protestors who, as he sees it, are actually uniformly anti-soldier. Setting that clumsy political observation aside for a moment, as it is the first of many, it is here that we get to see how this provides a purpose for Chickie that his life up until now has been lacking. We quickly learn that almost everyone who knows him considers him to be a bum who hasn’t made much of his life. Thus, despite not having much of a plan, he decides to hitch a ride over to the war to prove everyone wrong.
Somehow running at over two hours, the film proceeds to stretch this premise to its absolute breaking point. Every joke is built on the same extension of how wild of an idea this all is, ensuring each of them begins to wear quite thin almost as quickly as they start. While it has more dramatic aspirations that are their own separate issue, the biggest problem is how much the humor falls completely flat. In nearly every single scene, we are treated to superficial characters riffing and rambling through bits that lack even the faintest hint of cleverness. Through it all, it is so sincere and genuine that it begins to border on being sappy. When one character Chickie encounters says that his plan “may be idiotic, but it’s a noble gesture,” it ends up serving as an unintentional description of the film itself. Unfortunately, this ends up meaning these two competing impulses pull each other apart. It is never silly enough to be as fun as it thinks it is nor is it humble enough to actually capture any emotional connection.
Despite how serious the film takes itself, it more closely resembles a one-note sketch which is so monotonous and meandering that you keep wondering when something new is actually going to happen. At nearly an hour in, it is as though we are cycling through location after location with only the lightest of laughs sprinkled throughout. The only saving grace is that there is something almost charming in Efron’s Chickie as he bumbles his way through Vietnam. He basically lets everyone who questions him believe that he is actually on a classified mission or part of the CIA in order to end up where he shouldn’t be. There is some hint of self-awareness to the story as he clearly doesn’t understand the full depths of the war that is taking place. When he first arrives at the fighting, this gets brought into focus as he and one of his friends that he finds discuss how what he’s doing isn’t funny. The film then continues on with only glimpses of robust development as it often uses the war as a comedic backdrop. It seeks to have it both ways in being serious and silly only to end up failing at both.
That isn’t to say that films can’t find humor in the horrors of war and the dark absurdity of being sent to die for basically nothing. However, for such a balance to work, there needs to be a sharpness to the story and the writing. For almost all of The Greatest Beer Run Ever, it is besought by a shallowness that it can’t ever shake. While no one was expecting a comprehensive portrait of the conflict and the people swept up in the manner of a Ken Burns documentary, there still is a general feeling that all of what we’re seeing is only the smallest of approximations of a broader history. When it feels like a Drunk History sketch could provide more depth than your feature, you have a problem. Everything we’re seeing has been recycled from films so many times that this work lacks much of its own identity. Though Chickie is warned that war isn’t like what he sees in the movies, the film itself mostly plays like a recreation of tropes with a few jokes here and there. It pulls its punches far too much.
All of the visuals and staging of every scene lack any sort of grand vision to it. Seeing Chickie wander around with his duffel bag of beer and gifts from home is a prevailing visual gag that it can’t fully coast off of. There clearly is a fondness for the character at the center of this story, though the film never seems interested in fully grappling with how he grows and changes. Often, it will undercut any character development in service of a half-hearted joke that wasn’t really worth it such as one moment where Chickie says “that wasn’t so bad” after nearly being killed. Efron, ever an underutilized actor, gives his all to these lines only to get let down by the material itself. Even with all his best efforts, he is fighting a losing battle at every turn.
Many sequences rely on a soundtrack that seems to be crying out with how fun it is, serving as an out-of-place accompaniment to the more grim moments. One particular interrogation scene seems to almost be played for laughs before being punctuated by an odd musical cue where silence would have conveyed the seriousness of what we just saw. When a score gets used it is far too conventional to leave much of an impact. While it occasionally feels like it aspires to be more like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, it lacks the sense of gravity or the gregariousness to pull it off. Just as Chickie finds himself in way over his head, the film falls into narrative pitfall after pitfall without any prevailing purpose to anything that is taking place. While it isn’t nearly as misguided as the aforementioned Green Book, there is nothing even remotely courageous or incisive about The Greatest Beer Run Ever. It is only barely the first step to a more fully developed work, both from a comedic and dramatic perspective.
That is where we get back to the political component that is interwoven through the narrative. Chickie began his journey as a patriot who wouldn’t dare criticize his government despite the fact that a forced flashback scene shows his friend beginning to question the story they’d been told. He dutifully repeats that there is an enemy they must fight and that his sister is wrong to doubt that. The film gestures at developing his eventual recognition of the humanity of the Vietnamese people and the deception of the war, though with such a lack of vigor that it almost feels like an afterthought to the story. Even when it clearly flags something as being important to challenge the narrative, it quickly fades away. Despite an extended appearance by a more measured Russell Crowe as a perceptive journalist, the film still can’t shake itself out of the thematically uncertain rut that it keeps falling into. Even when there are gasps of clarity, The Greatest Beer Run gets swallowed up by its own shallowness.