Wednesday, October 19, 2022


We flatter ourselves if we think we’re better than the past just because we know how it’ll turn out. A story’s ending, after all, depends solely on where we choose to stop telling it. As Faulkner once reminded us, the past isn’t even past. The present sure isn’t either. Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a movie about how much it might take to make an unthinking person recognize the truth about his own historical moment. In this case, it’s the late 1960s. New York barfly Chickie (Zac Efron) spends his time, when off from hard shifts on merchant ships, drinking with his buddies. Together they lament those friends who are deployed in Vietnam. One has just been shipped back in a casket. The guys grumble about war protestors and the media coverage and grouse that it is unfair American soldiers are losing hope on account of all this negativity from the homefront. On a whim, Chickie decides to hitch a ride on a cargo ship and deliver some beer to these friends serving overseas. Turns out spending time in a war zone isn’t the lark he thinks it’d be, though the movie’s breezy tone and ambling smirk matches its lead’s stupid grin as that lesson takes its sweet time sinking in. Chickie isn’t the fastest learner, but even he can recognize that his army buddies are way more distressed about his bumbling into battlefields than he thought they’d be. (The first deflation has to be learning they can get beer there.) Efron plays this slow-dawning realization by degrees, calibrating his wide grin and frat boy antics—he breezes past Generals by letting them assume he’s CIA, to name one of his carefree gambits—into appropriately chastened through near-death encounters.

Farrelly began his career making, with his brother Bobby, hilariously raunchy (but secretly sentimental) comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Lately he’s pivoting solo, with Green Book and now this new effort, to spin simple lessons out of complicated truths. It’s a little historical depth and extra sentimentality in a slightly more serious version of his studio comedy packaging. (In other words, he’s traded gags about bodily fluids and anatomical functions for gentler punchlines and Important Human Connection.) These movies are dopily well-intentioned at best. Unlike Green Book’s retrograde buddy-comedy approach to race relations, Beer Run is a little more honest about its character’s progression from ignorantly self-righteous into a humbled observer. The trappings of Vietnam in this telling may look flat and overlit and sitcom stagy, but the increasingly harrowing implied violence around the character makes his journey less of a lark. It helps that he meets a world-weary war correspondent played by Russel Crowe with every bit of effortless gravitas that casting implies. Eventually, Chickie realizes that journalists are telling the truth, the military isn’t being honest, and, though some soldiers are brave in the face of senseless killing, the war was probably a mistake. If he makes it home, he might just live up to a British journalist’s description of his feat: “It may be idiotic, but it’s a noble gesture.” There’s the review right there.

Better use of true trappings to tell a caper in the shadow of real war is David O. Russell’s Amsterdam. It’s at least more invested in the bodily damage combat leaves in its wake, and finds metaphors to match. Two American soldiers in The Great War (Christian Bale and John David Washington) bond when they, riddled with shrapnel, are pulled from the trenches. Each saved the other. Their nurse (Margot Robbie) extracts jagged metal from their flesh and stores it for use in her found-materials art projects. Turns out she’s an emigre living the European life, and as the long post-war years loom, the three become good friends. She’s in love with one, and a dear friend of the other, and they all live together in a cozy loft apartment in Amsterdam—a gauzy, artful, open-minded arrangement in the caesura between World Wars. And yet, because they met in bloody circumstances and the shock of the war is nonetheless the engine driving the culture in which they swim—surrealism and modernism elbowing into their rosy, softly-lit lives—it’s an inextricable part of their fleeting friendly connection. Reconfigured and reclaimed, it literally surrounds them: a tea set, a photograph, a memory. The city of the title takes on a similar symbolic weight. It’s a place, and a mindset, that’s an oasis from the usual, and a respite removed from the weight of prejudices back home that’d make their casual arrangement unthinkable.

That the characters can’t stay so cozily in the emigre state of mind fuels the bittersweet heart of the picture as it plunges into a knotty conspiracy back home in America. The central trio has parted, and when they meet again a decade and a half later, on the streets of New York City, they’re all mixed up in a plot involving white supremacist agitators hoping to shake off FDR’s New Deal and align their country with the rising tide of European fascism. A beloved General is suddenly dead, and his daughter is subsequently pushed under a moving vehicle. When the murderer tries to pin the blame on Bale and Washington, they scramble about looking to clear their names. (All this, and they’re trying to stage a charity reunion revue for their old army unit—shades of White Christmas—too.) The movie ambles along, slowly untangling the various threads by the time the credits roll. It plays loosely with history, but fairly in identifying between Europe and America a shared moneyed class with a taste for authoritarian control to protect their business interests. Imagine Frank Capra doing John le Carré, complete with unsubtle sentimentality hammering home a too-easy moral (hear that interminable final monologue) after the hard work of international intrigue. Buffeted by these competing demands, the central trio is a beguiling collision of acting styles. Bale stumbles and squints and blusters; Washington lets it all slide down easily; Robbie flits and flutters and flusters. And together they push and pull at the edges of the stifling story’s baggy pace and semi-complicated mystery to find moments of improbable melancholic grace.

Russell, no stranger to mismatched slow-boiling character conflicts, is usually quite good at cooking up scenarios in which good actors can cut loose and spread out potentially silly turns in serious subjects with a full commitment to both. His best movies—Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy—have compelling stories told with a kind of farcical plate-spinning quality, keeping a varied cast’s competing aims and through-lines legible even as they overlap and collide. This one’s sleepier, bringing on eccentric supporting characters in a soft-shoe of a mystery. The large ensemble—Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro, Andrea Riseborough, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Shannon, Mike Meyers, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Taylor Swift, and so on—makes for information devices and red herrings. There’s a wan quality to the imagery that keeps them pinned down, and a soft looniness to the line readings and complications that make for a hazy unreality that never quite gathers the heft it needs. The performances are a collection of tics and takes, with actors given space to spin out their competing ideas and aims. The story occasionally curlicues into distraction—and some overfamiliar fake-outs. But, for all the tricks it pulls, there’s a sharp political point in the middle about the collusion of corruption, and the way it tears at the happiness of those who just want to love each other and make art and help the defenseless and live in peace. Didn’t they almost have it all? One almost wants this ersatz Rick and his Ilsa to say we’ll always have Amsterdam.

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