It was wishful thinking to imagine that Peter Farrelly would go back to making dick and fart jokes with his brother, Bobby, after winning Best Picture for Green Book, whose road to Academy glory began here in Toronto four years ago. How are you gonna keep him on the flatulence farm when he’s seen the bright lights of the Kodak Theatre? Following the rosy can’t-we-call-get-along biopic race relations of his previous film and their unfortunate Oscar-night victory, the guy who once gave Cameron Diaz a spunky new hairdo, has officially traded lowbrow comedy for middlebrow dramedy. There’s gold (statuettes) in them hills.
To be fair, Farrelly has always been a sap, as secretly interested in warming hearts as he is in triggering gag reflexes. Look beyond the scatological set pieces that made them popular, and you can see a touch of Frank Capra in many of Peter and Bobby’s sweet misfit yuk- and yuck-fests. Lately, the writer-director has simply been reversing the ratio of Goofus to Gallant. His latest film, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, which premiered last night at TIFF, reverses it further in Gallant’s favor. This is another true story of broadening horizons during the 1960s that feels like it could have been conceived for the screen sometime in the 1980s. And it’s further proof that Farrelly did better, more charming work when he ballasted his soft side with raunch.
Going prestige-picture straight has not, thankfully, killed his endearing love of knuckleheads. Here, as in Green Book, there is the anchoring presence of an amiable New Yawk lunk: John “Chickie” Donohue (Zac Efron), a hard-drinking Brooklyn dude with a not-particularly-enlightened perspective on the war in Vietnam. One night in his local watering hole (tended by Farrelly’s old Kingpin secret weapon, Bill Murray), he hatches a foolhardy scheme: He’ll bring a beer to each of his four buddies still stationed in Vietnam, as a thank you for their service. No one, not even Chickie himself, expects him to actually go through with this cockamamie plan. But soon enough, he’s on a cargo ship headed for the war, duffel bag of PBR over his shoulder.
Having just won Best Picture with a movie about an Italian American from midcentury New York, is Farrelly following further in the footsteps of Francis Ford Coppola? Co-written by Brian Currie and Pete Jones, adapting the memoir of the same name, The Greatest Beer Run Ever becomes something akin to, well, his version of Apocalypse Now. (No, really.) Chickie, a well-intentioned fool, bumbles into a war zone like a frat boy taking a late-night bet too far. He ends up crisscrossing in and out of danger, delivering brews to old friends who receive him less with open arms than are-you-actually-insane admonishments. It’s to the movie’s credit that being amused by Chickie’s ambitiously stupid journey of patriotic gratitude doesn’t preclude recognizing what a blinkered idiot he is for embarking upon it. He’s a “war tourist” getting in over his head for the story.
Beer Run might have worked a little better as satire, with a version of Chickie too thick-skulled to ever acknowledge what a bad idea this little bring-the-party-to-them pilgrimage was. Instead, a fish out of water comedy becomes a tale of innocence lost, as our hero starts to wake up to the reality of the war that the cameras don’t capture and the sense in his protesting younger sister’s claims that LBJ is lying to the public. Without articulating it quite so directly, the film becomes about Chickie realizing that there’s no discrepancy between supporting the troops and opposing the war — an awakening plenty of actual Americans went through during the long death march of Vietnam. In practice, though, that’s akin to Futurama’s savvy spoof of M*A*S*H*, with Farrelly toggling the switch from “irreverent” to “maudlin” and just keeping it there.
There are poignant moments here, many of them courtesy of Russell Crowe as a war photographer who finds some begrudged respect for Chickie’s self-imposed mission. But while the film isn’t quite as risible as Green Book (it’s not a glorified white savior story in buddy-comedy drag, in other words), it has an awfully similar arc: A myopic doofus has his eyes opened by the hardships of others, gaining edification through the suffering he witnesses (in this case, on a countrywide scale). In other words, all the horrors of Vietnam — not avoided or sanitized, exactly, but certainly selectively encountered — are just the catalyst for a screw-up to grow up and gain a more nuanced perspective on the world. Perhaps you could call The Greatest Beer Run Ever Farrelly’s attempt to do the same. If so, it makes an inadvertent case for immaturity in the process.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.