Peter Farrelly became famous co-directing broad comedies with his brother, Bobby: most notably the “Dumb and Dumber” movies (1994, 2014) and the wondrous “There’s Something About Mary” (1998). On his own, he’s been doing something very different: laying claim to the ‘60s. First there was “Green Book” (2018), which is about the civil rights movement, sort of. It managed to win a best picture Oscar. Oh, those Academy members. Now there’s “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” about the Vietnam War, more than sort of.
“Beer Run” starts streaming Friday on Apple TV+ and screening at several suburban theaters.
It’s the autumn of 1967, and Zac Efron plays Chickie, an Irish guy from Inwood, in upper Manhattan. Angered by an antiwar protest, he announces in his favorite bar that he’s going to bring some brew to his buddies in Vietnam. This sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But it’s based on a true story, that favorite get-out-of-jail card for filmmakers to play. “No, no, this really did happen; so you can’t say my movie is unbelievable.”
Here we have an unsolvable cinematic mystery. A great movie, or even just a good one, can take something utterly implausible (“So this kid puts a cute little outer-space creature on the handlebars of his bike, and they . . . fly?”) and make it seem as immediate as your happiest memory. On the other hand, a bad movie can take actual events and make them seem as phony as, well, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
The relatively easy part for Chickie is getting over to Vietnam. Since he’s in the Merchant Marine, he can ship out on a freighter heading there. He has a bag with what would seem to be about three dozen cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in it. Have you ever lugged around three dozen cans of anything, let alone in a war zone? Yes, Chickie’s mission takes him far from Saigon — though even Saigon is not as it seems, since his arrival coincides with Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year. If you need the relevance of that fact explained, “Beer Run” probably isn’t a movie for you. Of course, if you don’t need it explained, then it’s probably not the movie for you in a different way.
A seriously miscast Efron does his best. He’s good at looking perturbed, and perturbation of many sorts is Chickie’s lot throughout the movie. But that’s about all Efron’s good at here. His limitations are underscored by the brief presence of Russell Crowe, as a photojournalist, and even briefer presence of Bill Murray, as the proprietor of that bar where Chickie has his Pabst-bearing epiphany.
Crowe now has a physical heft that makes you wonder when his next annual check-up might be. But that bulk helps give him a gravity the rest of the movie lacks. “Telling the truth about this war is being supportive of the boys,” he tells Chickie. The flat-footedness of that sentence notwithstanding, Crowe almost makes it sound eloquent. As for Murray, he’s barely recognizable beneath a brush cut and behind a pair of old-man glasses. Standing behind the bar, barking at Chickie and company, he feels authentic as nothing else in the movie does.
One bit of inauthenticity is welcome. Murray’s establishment must be the only Irish bar in existence to have the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger” on the jukebox. There’s other unexpected stuff on the soundtrack. Farrelly generally avoids the Vietnam War movie greatest hits route (”For What It’s Worth,” ”We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place,” et al.). Instead we hear “She’s About a Mover,” “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” even a French cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
(Random thought: In French versions of “Michelle,” do the French words get sung in English?)
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Beer Run” is tonal haphazardness. Sometimes it’s meant to be funny — other times serious — other times even solemn. (Alternate title: “Chickie Learns About the Horrors of War.”) The few jokes that are clearly intentional tend to fall flat. One should go over big around here, at least. Things are getting hairy near Quang Tri. A sergeant starts to hand Chickie a .45, since he’s said he was in the military a few years ago. Stationed where? Sarge asks. “Massachusetts,” Chickie says. Sarge takes back the automatic.
THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER
Directed by Peter Farrelly. Written by Farrelly, Brian Currie, Pete Jones; based on the book by John “Chickie” Donohue and Joanna Molloy. Starring Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Bill Murray. At suburban theaters and streaming on Apple TV+. 126 minutes. R (language, some war violence)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.