In the early winter of 1968, the 26-year-old civilian Chickie Donohue arrived in Vietnam with a duffel bag of brewskis and an errand that could be reasonably called idiotic, patronizing, suicidal — and, even, as this shaggily appealing comedy insists, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.” Donohue (Zac Efron) has been double dog dared by his drinking buddies back home in Inwood, New York, then a working class Irish neighborhood, to hand-deliver a beer to four of their buddies serving in the war. “A sudsy thank you card!” Donohue exclaims, delighted by his own moxie. His farcical mission is mostly true and just the sort of crowd-pleaser about lunkhead enlightenment that intoxicates the director Peter Farrelly in the wake of his Oscar for “Green Book.”
Farrelly and his co-writers, Brian Currie and Pete Jones, see the national id reflected in Donohue’s patriotic, ill-reasoned rationale for his quest, which is clearly a few cans short of a, you know. To this layabout slacker, his blustering pals and their jingoistic barkeep, the Colonel (Bill Murray, near-invisible under a gruff flattop), a pull-tab of domestic ale supports the troops by reminding the fighters abroad that America reigns supreme. For a while, Farrelly feigns to agree; the film starts like a Super Bowl commercial and ends like a hangover.
When Donohue sets sail for Saigon, public opinion supports the conflict, an innocence Efron embodies by hitchhiking toward the front with a schmucky grin affixed like a shield. (Grunts one soldier, “Every once in a while, you run into a guy who’s too dumb to get killed.”) But by the time Donohue returns home, the Tet offensive — which he witnesses — will have turned the majority of Americans against the war, including him. After all, if a dingbat like him is able to bluff his way past officers to get to the battlefield, things are not under control.
The script is grounded in Donohue’s memoir of the same name (written with J.T. Molloy) and captures his bravado. (“I was a four-star general when it came to slinging BS,” he writes.) While the film makes his onscreen portrayal more oblivious, it backs his claim to have seen a United States tank blow a hole in the wall of its own embassy, only to later blame the blast on the Viet Cong.
A local traffic cop (Kevin K. Tran) and hard-living photojournalist (Russell Crowe with a brusque, sleeves-rolled-up cynicism) are invented amalgamations of the many people who stepped in to save Donohue’s neck. (If pressed, the movie would rather label its protagonist a dangerous distraction over a hero.) To heighten the tension — as well as extend empathy toward the Vietnamese villagers — Farrelly also concocts a scene where Donohue is forced to hide in the jungle from his own countrymen.
A few horrors are embellished from the book, particularly those that inspire the cinematographer Sean Porter to shoot in dramatic slow motion: a herd of napalmed elephants, a prisoner plummeting headfirst from a helicopter, a wounded soldier backlit by flames. Otherwise, the film’s style is, like its subject, stubbornly chipper (albeit with a marvelous psychedelic rock soundtrack that pulls from lesser-known acts like The Electric Prunes). Depth comes from Efron’s visible difficulty maintaining a smile as he comes to sense that he’s crossed the ocean only to discover a permanent gulf between him and his childhood friends. They’ve endured agonies he’ll never understand — and a barfly like him can’t deliver a cheers that will set things right.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Rated R for language and violence. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters.