Movie Review: A Farrelly Brother and Zac Efron set out on “The Greatest Beer Run Ever”

Peter Farrelly’s luck had to run out.

The director who made his name with farces, who got Oscar glory for turning sentimental, serious and only occasionally silly with “Green Book,” gives us his take on Vietnam with another dramedy inspired by a true story in “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”

It’s about a New Yorker who sets off on a quixotic quest bring his pals “from the neighborhood” a beer. It’s the middle of the Vietnam War. They’re serving. He’ll do his part by delivering Pabst Blue Ribbon to a combat zone.

This “beer run” from Inwood, Manhattan, to Saigon and “up country” environs starts jaunty, gets somber and sentimental and then goes oh-so-very-wrong. You’ll feel it the instant it happens, just as I did. And when the ironic, tone-deaf tune that accompanies this eye-opening (to our hero) murder is reprised in a more emotional setting in the film’s finale, we’re all allowed to wonder if this Farrelly fellow ever had a clue.

Zac Efron stars as John “Chickie” Donohue, an oiler (engine maintenance) in the merchant marine, who travels for work and between voyages lays around his parents’ house when he’s not down at the the local pub. It’s a working class neighborhood — white, blue collar and patriotic. In 1967, Inwood was the sort of place you didn’t want to be questioning the war, the government running it or America in front of the locals.

Especially “The Colonel” (Bill Murray), the barkeep/owner of their favorite watering hole.

“War is NOT a TV show,” he grouses at the negative coverage that was just starting to take hold in ’67. Chickie agrees, which makes for spirited debates with his younger, peace-protesting sister (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, quite good). Guys from their neighborhood — friends — are dying. They’ve all been to the wakes and the funerals.

But it’s one thing to wave the flag and support the troops from 12,000 miles away. If only there was something they could do. You know, buy’em a beer or something.

I could do that,” Chickie declares. He can’t be serious. Or sober.

“”The man’s stone sober. That’s his fifth beer...tops,” the Colonel avows. Yeah. It’d be great to “bring our boys some good Ol’ American beer” in Vietnam.

The screenplay’s brightest moments are the ways fate and Chickie’s big mouth contrive to hold him to that vow. It’s not just his pals ribbing him over drinks. Mothers start showing up at the door, asking him to deliver some socks to this guy, take a rosary to that one. And damned if the fellow down at the Seafarers union hall doesn’t have a ship Vietnam-bound “in three hours.”

It’s right on the edge of hilarious that Chickie gets bum-rushed on board with a duffel full of PBRs and addresses of a handful of guys he knows to track down “in country.”

That first beer delivery, to an MP in Saigon, goes exactly as Chickie had hoped — a look of delighted surprise, brewskies all around, and dressed as he is, Chickie finds himself mistaken for “a tourist” — ‘Nam slang for “CIA.” That’ll facilitate his travels around South Vietnam to make his rounds. No American questions a “civilian” dressed like that.

But the jolly, jaunty mood of “Beer Run” ends the moment the guy has to wait for bodies to be off-loaded before boarding a transport. The good cheer he senses from this local bartender or that friendly, “Oklahoma” fan Vietnamese traffic cop fades as Chickie hits a firebase and sees things Americans at home weren’t seeing or hearing about — not yet. Not pre-Tet.

As in “Green Book,” the arc of the story is the naive, knee-jerk hero’s eyes being opened — here by violence, seemingly pointless sacrifice and war crimes.

Efron gamely plays-up Chickie’s ebullience at “surprising” this soldier or that one, only to be the last one to figure out that he’s risked his life for nothing, and his presence puts their lives at risk as well.

GIs barking “What the hell are you doing?” and “You think this is FUNNY?” are speaking for themselves, and for the viewer, who is treated to a CIA murder, a traumatized Vietnamese child weeping at seeing another Ugly American, coffins and a tactless search “for my friend” by the frivolous, tactless guy in the plaid shirt in a triage tent full of the dead and wounded in the middle of the Tet Offensive.

Farrelly and the screenwriters take another stab at making conservatives understand the role of a free press, serving up the always-cynical press corps, which Chickie rages at for not being “patriotic” and reporting this war in more flattering terms. The whole “stabbed in the back by the press” trope, “letting the troops down/bad for morale” argument gets one more airing.

“The truth doesn’t hurt us,” the veteran Look Magazine writer/photographer played by Russell Crowe lectures. “It’s the lies.

I dare say the real Donohue, whose memoir this is based on, might be a little surprised at how unflattering this portrait of his exploit turns out to be.

Farrelly struggles to strike the right notes, and he finds them, here and there. A lot of the sentimental moments play, and several laughs land. This is one daft idea, a fool undertaking a fool’s errand (What do you think GIs drank off duty “over there?” “Good ol’American beer.”) that sobers up a naive, flag-waving joker with a simplistic world view and glib take on the violence of being in combat.

But “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” falls to Earth the moment someone “falls” out of a helicopter. All the PBR in the world can’t make anybody watching it forget that. And setting that incident to the easy listening hit “Cherish” — and then reminding us you did it in a tender moment at the end — is as big a miscalculation as any Farrelly has ever made. And remember, Peter and his brother thought a reboot of “The Three Stooges” was a good idea.

Rating: R for language and some war violence

Cast: Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Kyle Allen, Jake Picking, Will Ropp and Bill Murray.

Credits: Directed by Peter Farrelly, scripted by Brian Hayes Currie, Peer Farrelly and Pete Jones, based on the memoir by John “Chickie” Donohue and J.T. Molloy. An Apple+ release.

Running time: 2:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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