REVIEW: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (2022)

I’ve always loved the story of Pinocchio. But since becoming a father, it has taken on a much different meaning. These days it resonates with me on a much deeper level than before. Earlier this year, Richard Zemeckis revisited “Pinocchio” through his well-made (and fashionably throttled) live-action remake of Disney’s 1940 animated classic. But leave it to filmmaking visionary Guillermo del Toro to truly energize this beloved story by shaking it up visually, narratively, and in some cases thematically. What we get is something truly special.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is brimming with heart and features its creator’s signature on nearly every frame. Del Toro, along with his co-director Mark Gustafson and his co-writer Patrick McHale, retell the 1883 Carlo Collodi fairytale with unshakable passion. Nothing about their film feels rehashed or half-hearted. In fact, it has a fresh energy all its own while still maintaining the emotional weight that made Collodi’s tale so impactful. It’s an incredible achievement from its exquisite stop-motion animation to its thoroughly affecting storytelling.

The story is set in 1930’s Italy where fascism was widespread, even reaching the small hillside hometown of a woodcarver name Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley). In a moving flashback we see the love Geppetto had for his beloved son Carlo. But when a passing warplane mistakenly dropped a bomb on their quiet little village, young Carlo was killed. Geppetto was devastated. As years passed, the world moved on but Geppetto did not. Overwhelmed with sorrow, he sank deeper into despair and the bottle.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

During a particular difficult day and in a fit of mournful anger, a drunken Geppetto haphazardly builds a wooden boy out of pine. Being a product of his creator’s grief, the boy looks nothing like the cute, polished, toy-like creation from the Disney films. He has lanky, out of proportion limbs. His gnarly head is highlighted by a sharp spiked nose. He’s held together by jagged nails which protrude from his body. It’s an abrasive sight but a fitting representation of Geppetto’s frame of mind.

You probably know where the story goes next. While Geppetto sleeps it off, a glowing benevolent Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears. She brings the wooden boy to life and names him Pinocchio (who’s wonderfully voiced by the earnest and lively Gregory Mann). The newly animated lad turns out to be a ball of endless curiosity and rambunctious energy which rattles a stunned, confounded Geppetto.

Pinocchio also catches the attention and sparks the concerns of the once amiable townsfolk who are now quick to criticize and judge their neighbor and his peculiar and very much alive wooden handiwork. Among them is the hypocritical (and slyly funny) local priest (Burn Gorman) and the town magistrate Podestà (Ron Perlman), a Mussolini fascist preparing to ship his son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) and other area kids off to military youth camp.

Observing it all is Sebastian J. Cricket, voiced with a near regal sophistication and charm by Ewan McGregor. Sebastian took up residence in a hollow tree trunk where he was preparing to write his memoirs. Unfortunately for him, he chose the very tree the drunken Geppetto chopped down to build his wooden boy. Now Sebastian has been tasked by the Wood Sprite with watching over Pinocchio. If he does so, he will be granted one wish – anything his heart desires. Through McGregor, Sebastian makes for a memorable sidekick, and he has a couple of great running gags that earn laughs every time.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Adding another dramatic layer is Count Volpe (a slithery Christoph Waltz), an interesting fusion of the classic characters Mangiafuoco, the Fox, and the Cat. Volpe is a down on his luck and shamelessly unscrupulous puppet-master working for a ramshackle traveling carnival. He too gets wind of the wooden boy without strings and sees him as his golden goose. We’re also treated to the voices of John Turturro, Time Blake Nelson, and Cate Blanchett (sorta) along the way.

Regardless of how familiar things may seem, nothing about the movie feels old hat. Del Toro brings something unique to the table at every turn. He adds his own spins to the story, his own twists to the characters, and his own imagination to the world-building. You can’t miss his deep reverence for the source material, yet he never seems shackled to it or handcuffed by expectations.

Guillermo del Toro has called “Pinocchio” his passion project, and after seeing it you can tell. He has poured his heart and soul into this beautiful vibrant experience, sticking firm to his original stop-motion vision despite the rejections of unwilling studios. It’s enchanting and heartfelt but also darkly funny and with a touch of the macabre. It’s voiced to perfection, immaculately scored by Alexandre Desplat, and animated with painstaking detail and incredible artistry. And it all flows from del Toro, who has turned this age-old tale into something undeniably his own. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” hits Netflix December 9th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (2022)

Crack detective Benoit Blanc returns to solve another murder among the rich and privileged in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”. This is writer-director Rian Johnson’s standalone sequel to his 2019 smash-hit “Knives Out” and the first of two franchise films he’s making for Netflix after they doled out $469 million for exclusive distribution rights back in March 2021.

Comparisons to the first film are all but guaranteed. Some will be unfair while others are unavoidable. But as whole, “Glass Onion” stands well on its own as a deliciously satisfying romp, driven by Johnson’s signature snarky wit and knack for savory dialogue. It’s crazier and more elaborate which doesn’t always work in its favor. But even when Johnson seems to lose control, he’s always quick to rein things back in. And that’s quite the task considering the film’s many moving parts. It may not match its predecessor stride-for-stride, but there’s a lot to love for fans of crafty whodunnits and sharp-edged comedies.

“Knives Out” won me over for a number of reasons and most trace back to Johnson. The film was fueled by his seamless storytelling, crisp pacing, whip-smart humor, and gaggle of well-defined characters. I really loved the out-of-touch dysfunctional family setting and how Johnson used two dramatically different yet equally terrific outsiders (played by Ana de Armas and LaKeith Stanfield) to expose and ultimately eviscerate their upper-crust entitlement.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

And then there was Benoit Blanc himself, a delightfully wry and erudite Hercule Poirot/Sherlock Holmes hybrid, played with such sly and unshakable confidence by Daniel Craig. I loved his quiet and calculated demeanor. I loved how he played his suspects like a fiddle, maintaining an air of maddening mystery, as he applied pressure and waited for them to crack. How could you not love him?

Embracing the popular impulse to go bigger the second time around, Rian Johnson ups the ante in “Glass Onion”. It’s still well crafted, devilishly insightful, and full of the surprise twists you’d expect. It’s also a little zanier, a lot showier, and definitely more far-fetched. And while Craig brandishes the same Southern charm and is genuinely funny (he handles dry humor like an ace), his Blanc doesn’t quite feel the same this time around. He’s is a bit goofier and more exaggerated. Yet it’s impossible to not love the Poirotian gumshoe’s vibrant presence.

With its ‘ode to Agatha Christie’ formula, “Glass Onion” begins by laying out all the essential pieces needed for a good whodunnit. We have a murder, a colorful array of suspects, each with their own reasonable motive, and of course a supersleuth to cut through the lies and root out the killer. It all unfolds on an private island in Greece owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has planned a weekend long murder-mystery party at his ridiculously posh estate. His four closest friends, his former business partner, and one Benoit Blanc have all received invitations.

After being greeted by a fabulous early cameo (I’ll let you enjoy the discovery), the partygoing guests take a two-hour yacht ride to Miles’ island where they’re met by their an Elon Musk-like host. Among the eclectic bunch is Claire (Kathryn Hahn), the governor of Connecticut who is eyeing a Senate run; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), a chief scientist at Miles’ Alpha Industries; Birdie (a scene-stealing Kate Hudson), a celebrity fashionista with a penchant for insensitivity; Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke (Dave Bautista), a beefcake Twitch streamer, and Duke’s saucy younger girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). Then there’s Andi (Janelle Monáe), who lost everything after Miles squeezed her out of their company. And on the outside is Blanc, who’s still wondering why he’s even there.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Needless to say, Miles’ party is interrupted by an actual murder and Benoit finds himself in the middle of yet another prickly case. Meanwhile Johnson has a field day, indulging in several classic tropes but putting his own contemporary spin on them. And as you would expect, much of the fun revolves around the characters who are both written and performed with personality and panache. Through them Johnson steadily pokes at the filthy rich along with those who bury their integrity and milk their wealthy connections for all they can get.

That gets to one area where “Glass Onion” tops its predecessor – in its handling of its politics. In “Knives Out” you could almost sense Johnson’s pride as his class critique would sometimes veer into heavy-handedness. But in “Glass Onion” it’s more ingrained in its characters and more organic within the story. It’s still obvious, but Johnson seems to trust us more. Some things you can’t miss, such as the oblivious self-absorption that pours out of the conversations. Other indictments are more subtle yet equally damning. Take the story’s pandemic-era setting. As most are confined to their homes, the story’s pampered elites are living it up. It’s reminiscent of certain politicians and celebrities who talked a serious game, only to be caught out enjoying their privilege while so many suffered under lockdowns.

While its title is inspired by a Beatles song from their “White Album”, the “Glass Onion” is more directly a reference to the huge glass chamber in the shape of an onion that sits atop Miles’ gazillion-dollar mansion. Yet if you know the history of the song you can probably see another reason Johnson chose it. Either way, “Glass Onion” the movie proves that “Knives Out” was no fluke, and Rian Johnson has a bonafide franchise on his hands. This one has a few question marks (I’m still not sure about its big ending), but it packs plenty of laughs, it keeps you guessing, it has its own flavor, and it’s more than just a rehash of the previous film. If Johnson can keep that up, we have some good stuff to look forward to.

“Glass Onion” will be in theaters for one week starting November 23rd. It will release globally on Netflix December 23rd.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Good Nurse” (2022)

Tobias Lindholm is the screenwriter behind two of my very favorite movies of the last ten years, 2012’s “The Hunt” and 2020’s “Another Round”. He steps back behind the camera for the first times since 2015 to direct his English language debut, “The Good Nurse”. Though known most for his writing, Lindholm gives way to Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”, “The Last Night in Soho”) who pens this thoroughly enthralling biographical crime drama that leans on the powerhouse performances from two Oscar winners.

Based on Charles Graeber’s 2013 book of the same name, this smart and surprisingly dense feature at times plays a little like a television medical procedural (and I say that as a compliment). Other times it has distinct old-school thriller vibes. It’s also biographical, telling the unsettling true-crime story of Charlie Cullen, a nurse who was confirmed to have murdered 29 patients (suspected to be as many as 400) in various hospitals over a 15-year span. Despite several suspicious incidents, hospitals chose to protect themselves rather than turning Cullen in. This allowed him to continue to find work up until a fellow nurse named Amy Loughren worked with New Jersey law enforcement to bring Cullen down.

The opening credits set a good tone. In 1996 at a Pennsylvania hospital, a nurse named Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) steps away from a patient who suddenly codes. Doctors rush in to attempt to resuscitate. But the camera stays focused on Charlie, slowly zooming in on his face as he watches the doctors frantically try to save the patient’s life. During this disquieting single shot, Charlie’s visible concern slowly erodes into a cold stare as a doctor takes off his gloves and announces the time of death. Redmayne nails the scene, and from that moment on we no longer see him. We see Charlie Cullen.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Jumping ahead to 2003, we’re introduced to Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), an ICU nurse at a New Jersey hospital. As the movie’s title suggests, Amy is a good nurse. She takes her job seriously and genuinely cares for her patients. She also has a serious heart condition, one that calls for a heart transplant. But she has to work at the hospital for one year before qualifying for health insurance. She has four months to go. If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s also a single mother struggling financially. She works long hours to provide for her two daughters, but with her medical bills it’s barely enough to scratch by.

Short on staff and hampered by budget cuts, the hospital hires Charlie Cullen to help the overworked night shift. Thin and slight, with sloped shoulders and dangling arms, Charlie has a quiet and unassuming presence. He’s the kind of person who easily disappears into the background. Amy shows him the ropes, and over time the two become close friends. Before long Charlie becomes a fixture in Amy’s life, driving her to work and even helping with her daughters. And after learning of her medical condition, he covers for her at the hospital, determined to see her through until she can get insured. For someone struggling like Amy, Charlie seems like a godsend. But then one of Amy’s patients unexpectedly dies, and the true-crime elements really kick in.

Led by their buttoned-up and aggressively corporate risk manager (a very good Kim Dickens), the hospital administrators immediately go into self-preservation mode, gathering what information they can and keeping it hid behind the veil of an “internal investigation”. It’s a full seven weeks after the death that they’re forced to notify the police. The two New Jersey homicide detectives assigned to investigate (Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) are incensed by the delay especially after learning the patient’s family has already cremated the body. No body means no autopsy which means no case.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But the hospital’s lack of promptness and obvious stonewalling only raises the suspicions of the detectives who eventually set their eyes on Charlie. But getting through the hospital bureaucracy proves to be a chore. They need someone on the inside – someone close to Charlie who could help them get the evidence the hospital is intent on hiding.

So often movies like this can wander, especially when topping two hours. But “The Good Nurse” remains compelling throughout thanks to some good behind-the-camera choices. Rather than making Charlie, his motives, and his pathology her centerpiece, Wilson-Cairns builds her story around Amy. Together with Chastain, she hooks us emotionally and adds a penetrating human layer. And Lindholm’s crisp and methodical dramatic pacing has us glued to every frame. He keeps this talky restrained thriller from ever feeling dry, and his management of tone is spot-on.

The real-life events behind “The Good Nurse” is inherently chilling, so no additives needed in that department. But it does require a specific kind of performance to pull it off. Redmayne fits the bill plus some. Everything he does lands well, from his unnerving reticence to the small hints of the monster within. Then you have Chastain, our emotional connection who grounds the story with her remarkable restraint. Both are key ingredients to fleshing out this terrifying true story that will leave you second-guessing your next hospital visit. “The Good Nurse” is out now in select theaters and streams October 26th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Good House” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sigourney Weaver stars and anchors “The Good House”, a smart and thoughtful new drama aimed at grownups from co-directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky. It proves to be a wonderful vehicle for Weaver who (inexplicably) hasn’t been given a role this meaty in a long time. Watching her navigate between comically sardonic and tragically damaged is a treat.

“The Good House” isn’t an easy movie to map out, and it ends in a much different place than it begins narratively, thematically, and tonally. To Forbes and Wolodarsky’s credit, they do a good job ushering us through their wonky story, keeping us focused and laying enough groundwork that the inevitable final act, though a little shaky, feels earned. It’s also helped by a collection of interesting and organic supporting characters who liven things up and fill out the film’s cozy small town setting.

The movie starts by planting our feet in Wendover, Massachusetts, a picturesque little town on the North Shore of Boston. It’s a quaint and quiet community with an inviting atmosphere and postcard quality views. It’s where me meet Hildy Good (Weaver), a hometown real estate agent with confidence to spare. Hildy is all about perception, dressing to the nines and driving a Range Rover just to convey the image of success to her clients. And Hildy is accustomed to success, that is until recently.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

“The Good House” is all about unpacking Hildy’s story and much of it is done through her own words to us. Weaver routinely breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and establishing herself as our unreliable narrator. But her straight-to-camera dialogue is more than some gimmicky narrative device. It’s a key ingredient to the movie. At times it comes across as Hildy simply sharing her story through her own biased and self-deluded lens. Other times it comes across as a woman wrestling with her conscience; trying to convince it (us) and herself that she’s fine. Some of the most revealing moments come through these brief one-on-ones.

Though she’s not ready to admit it, Hildy’s life is crumbling. The souring housing market has hurt her business, leaving her with mounting debt. She has to pay alimony to her ex-husband Scott (David Rasche) who left her for a man. Her two adult daughters (Rebecca Henderson, Molly Brown) have their own lives yet still sponge off mom. Her once trusted protégé (Kathryn Erbe) stole most of her clients and started her own realty agency. And to top it all off, Hildy’s an alcoholic. She’s duped her family into believing she’s in recovery following an intervention and a rehab stint. But while she plays sober during the day, at night she guzzles wine from her hidden stash at home.

Of course she think she’s okay, but Hildy lives in denial. “I need a good year,” she tells us, as if selling more homes will solve all of her problems and help get her mojo back. She’s pretty convincing, and we’re tempted to give her the benefit of the doubt. That’s because both Weaver and the cagey script (penned by Forbes, Wolodarsky, and Thomas Bezucha) imbue Hildy with such a persuasive self-assurance, especially in the film’s first half. But we learn better over time as the cracks in her facade become more noticeable.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The colorful array of townsfolk weave in and out of the story, each used to reveal a little more about Hildy. In addition to her daughters, ex-husband, and arch reality rival, there’s also the town’s therapist, Peter (comedian Rob Delaney), a wealthy young newcomer, Rebecca (a terrific Morena Baccarin), her perpetually soused old friend, Mamie (Beverly D’Angelo), and the local coffee shop gossip, Henry (Paul Guilfoyle).

Out of the slew of side characters, the most alluring is Frank Getchell (Kevin Kline). He’s the local jack of all trades who happens to be Hildy’s old high school flame. He’s a bit kooky, but he’s also an all-around good guy who still cares for Hildy. It’s a nice reunion for Weaver and Kline who worked together in two movies during the 1990s, “Dave” and “The Ice Storm”. From their first scene together, the two screen veterans instantly rekindle their old chemistry.

“The Good House” offers something that has become a rarity in modern movies – an actual look at womanhood that’s free of pity and sentimentality. It’s even more rare for its subject to be an older woman – a demographic that Hollywood repeatedly overlooks. But “The Good House” proves what many of us have known – that there are plenty of good stories to tell from this age group. And there are plenty of good actors who still have a lot to bring to the screen. In this case it’s Sigourney Weaver, who not only proves that point, but who delivers some of the best work of her already stellar career. “The Good House” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “God’s Creatures” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

This year A24 has built upon their well-established hip image with the zany and self-indulgent multiverse bop “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and a string of attention-getting horror films that includes “X”, “Men”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, and “Pearl”. But easily one of the best movies from A24’s 2022 catalog is “God’s Creatures”, a searing psychological drama from co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer.

“God’s Creatures” is a tough-minded social study wrapped in a warped Prodigal Son story. Along the way it takes a scalpel to familial bonds, family loyalties, and small town justice, all while looking hard at sexual assault amid the slanted social dynamics of a tight-knit Irish fishing village. That’s meaty subject matter on its own, but it’s Davis, Holmer, and first-time feature screenwriter Shane Crowley’s honest and unvarnished perspective that makes it resonate.

Image Courtesy of A24

The film features a terrific cast, none better than Emily Watson, an actress who can convey more through a simply stare than most actresses can with pages of dialogue. Her awards worthy performance offers a fascinating spin on the mother archetype, one minute embodying it to the fullest and later offering a full-blown deconstruction as her character is faced with choices and their potentially damning consequences.

Firmly rooted in the everyday monotony of her rural coastal village, middle-aged matriarch Aileen O’Hara (Watson) spends her days sorting fish and oysters with other women at the town’s seaside distribution plant. At home, her family is jolted by the unannounced return of her favorite son, Brian (Paul Mescal) who has spent the last several years in Australia. There’s never a reason given for his sudden reappearance, but there’s plenty to glean from the film’s second half for us to reach our own conclusions.

While the ecstatic Aileen instantly reverts to the doting mother, the other members of the family seem leery of Brian’s return. His cold taciturn father, Con (a stern and earnest Declan Conlon) speaks volumes with his silence. But his clear-eyed straight-shooting sister, Erin (a wonderful Toni O’Rourke) doesn’t hide her suspicions. The family tension is palpable, and Crowley’s screenplay manages it without the need for melodramatic flashbacks or heavy exposition. He simply trusts us to follow the breadcrumbs and figure things out for ourselves.

Aileen’s maternal joy in having her son back comes with its own set of form-fitting blinders. Not only does she tune out the growing concerns of her family, she also blindly brushes off some clear red flags (anything for her little boy). But the tide shifts after Brian is accused of sexually assaulting Aileen’s younger co-worker and longtime family friend, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi, full of quiet fortitude). When asked by the police about her son’s whereabouts on the night in question, Aileen lies to corroborate Brian’s story. The repercussions of that choice reverberates through the remainder of the film’s running time.

Image Courtesy of A24

While its story unfolds into a gripping character-driven slow burn, “God’s Creatures” is full of modest yet extremely effective touches. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s beautiful yet somber gaze shrewdly feeds the film’s tragic mood and atmosphere. The sound design leans heavy on local ambience (the caws of seagulls, the clacking of oyster shells, the many different sounds of water) which provides a strong sense of place. Then there’s the disconcerting score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans – a brilliantly strange blend of wailing strings and higher pitched thumps.

But “God’s Creatures” always comes back to the characters and the exceptional ensemble behind them. Emily Watson should immediately be put into the Oscar conversation for her raw and unflinching performance. Mescal’s uncanny ability to mix sinister with charm plays with our perception of his character by making Brian both endearing and unnerving. And then there’s Franciosi who gets several great scenes, none better than a single sustained profile shot that comes at the film’s most crucial moment. It’s a scene that encapsulates what makes the movie so good – it’s concise, affecting, and it has faith in its audience to figure things out. “God’s Creatures” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” (2022)

After four years, director Peter Farrelly returns to the big screen for the first time since winning the Best Picture Oscar for 2018’s “Green Book”. While it might not have been Best Picture material (whatever that even means), “Green Book” was an earnest, big-hearted crowdpleaser that infuriated many who took the film (and awards shows in general) too seriously. It had its flaws, but it also had its charm.

Farrelly’s follow-up, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” features some of the same ticks that both helped and hurt “Green Book”. It’s sincere, mainstream, feel-good entertainment. But it also keeps so much on the surface, rarely (if ever) digging into the themes it introduces. The movie has a good message, several of them in fact. But the screenplay (co-written by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Pete Jones) bluntly conveys them rather than explore them which is sure to push away those looking for something deeper.

Based on an inconceivable true account, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” tells the story of John “Chickie” Donohue (played by a mustachioed Zac Efron, packing his signature goofiness and charm). Set in 1967, Chickie Donohue is a thick-headed merchant marine who still lives with his parents in Inwood, a tight-knit neighborhood in northern Manhattan.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

While many local boys are off fighting in Vietnam, Chickie and his gaggle of drinking buddies spend most of their time hanging out at a bar owned and ran by the Colonel (a fantastic Bill Murray). Collectively, the group sits around declaring their unwavering support of the war even though they can’t really articulate what America is fighting for (certainly it’s something to do with those dang “Commies”). But with eight kids from their neighborhood already killed in action and a ninth just declared MIA, their blind allegiance is a tough sell.

On the other side is Chickie’s sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) who’s heavily involved in war protests which he believes dishonors the troops. So Chickie and his pals from the pub hatch a wild-haired idea – one rooted in mind-boggling naivete. Wouldn’t it be great if someone from back home went to Vietnam and surprised the neighborhood boys still fighting with an ice-cold beer? What better way (in their minds) to support the troops? And who better to carry out such a cockamamie plan than Chickie?

While Chickie’s appreciation for the troops is sincere, he’s just as much about showing he’s not a flake. None of his friends or his family expect he’ll REALLY go over to Vietnam. After all, he has a reputation for not going through with his ideas. Convicted over his inaction and determined to prove that everyone’s wrong about him, Chickie stuffs a bottomless duffel bag with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and hops a cargo ship bound for Vietnam. Two months and 10,000 nautical miles later he arrives in Vietnam and begins his improbable beer run across a war-torn country.

After firmly establishing Chickie’s ignorance of the world around him, Farrelly spends the rest of the film opening the eyes of our well-meaning yet gullible dope. Much of what he learns comes from the assortment of people he encounters. There’s Arthur Coates (Russell Crowe), a cynical but realistic war correspondent for Look Magazine. There’s “Oklahoma” (Kevin K. Tran), a local traffic cop he befriends in Saigon. And there’s the hysterical Lieutenant Habershaw (Matt Cook) who’s convinced Chickie is an undercover CIA agent.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

But Chickie’s biggest reality checks comes through his unexpected face-to-faces with war itself. Such as when he dupes his way to the front-line to see his buddy Duggan (Jake Picking). Or when he gets caught up in the Tet Offensive. These scenes stretch the bounds of plausibility, yet they offer several sobering moments for Chickie and us. It all comes down to how much you buy into both Chickie and his outlandish odyssey. Efron’s multilayered performance is convincing even when the storytelling isn’t. And while it’s hard to buy some of the liberties Farrelly and company take, Efron ensures we never doubt Chickie or his motivations.

There’s one hilariously delivered line of dialogue that perfectly sums up Chickie’s crazy venture, “It may be idiotic”, says one character, “but it’s a noble gesture.” The movie agrees. Farrelly makes no attempt to hide the absurdity of Chickie’s idea or the crazy way he pulls it off. But it does recognize Chickie’s heart and his transformation from a naive and credulous lunkhead to an informed and contrite lunkhead. Ultimately that worked for me.

At times Farrelly’s pacing feels too rushed, and the tone-hopping can be distracting. Also, his attempt at connecting the fractured country then to our current climate of divisiveness doesn’t quite land. Still, I love the intent and the optimism behind its overarching message. Efron continues to grow on me as an actor, there are a few good laughs, and several of the more sobering moments have the desired emotional impact. It’s probably too much to juggle in one movie, but Farrelly keeps it all together and makes an utterly preposterous true story resonate in ways I wasn’t expecting. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” opens tomorrow (Sept. 30th) in select theaters and streams on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS