One of filmed media’s great comic inventions was Deputy Barney Fife, The Andy Griffith Show’s bumbling foil to Griffith’s own straight-laced Sheriff Andy Taylor. The combination of the series’ brilliantly eccentric scripts and the equally marvelous characterization of the late Don Knotts made it easy to overlook the fact that never in a million years would you actually want this man protecting you.
In reality, Taylor’s loyalty to Fife put their little town of Mayberry in constant jeopardy—whether he was accidentally letting prisoners escape or just shooting another hole in the courthouse floor, no criminal could possibly have posed as much of a threat to the gentlefolk of Mayberry as their deputy did. The comic genius in evidence allows us to overlook that inconvenient truth.
In Beer for My Horses, country singer and songwriter Toby Keith plays another small-town lawman, Deputy Bill “Rack” Racklin, who remains fiercely loyal to incompetent colleague Lonnie Freeman (played by comedian Rodney Carrington) because of their longtime friendship. We’re expected to boo Tom Skerritt as their superior, Sheriff Landry, because he insists on pointing out Lonnie’s dunderheadedness. Instead, his complaints seem eminently reasonable. Lonnie is not a complex dramatic creation like Barney but a simple hick stereotype—and Carrington, to be charitable, is no Don Knotts.
And so Beer for My Horses goes. The screenplay by Keith and Carrington asks us to accept that the duo’s fellow posse member, Skunk (played by the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent), is cool because he refuses to speak and insists on using a bow and arrow instead of a gun—both attributes that in fact make him uniquely unqualified for police work of any kind. We’re asked to believe that a farting dog still qualifies as actual comedy. We’re asked to swallow the notion that an Oklahoma town’s meth problem is caused not by locals with bathtub labs but by a stock Mexican drug lord bringing the problem in from out of state. His kidnapping of Rack’s ex-girlfriend (a deeply miscast Claire Forlani) sets the plot in motion when our heroes set off on a road trip to retrieve her.
At the center of all this stands the burly Keith, whose easy charisma onstage and in his music videos doesn’t fully make the transition to the big screen. It’s a problem he mostly avoided in his previous film, 2006’s family drama Broken Bridges, by playing… a country singer and songwriter. Still, Beer for My Horses is a sizable step up from the desultory Broken Bridges in the growing Keith cinematic oeuvre. (Both movies were directed by Michael Salomon, who also helms Keith’s videos.) While Bridges’ small scale only exaggerated its dramatic inertness, Beer is always on the go and briskly paced.
There are also at least a few diverting set pieces: The early action sequence in which Rack and crew capture the brother of Mr. Scary Mexican Drug Dealer as he attempts to steal a great quantity of fertilizer (for making the meth, don’tcha know) is such a well-executed hoot that it has the effect of making the relatively low-key climax of the movie seem anemic by comparison. Country legend Mel Tillis’ scene as a plumber is a sweet, tossed-off little gem, and he brings the best out of Keith during their brief time together onscreen. But best of all is an intriguing sequence in which Rack and friends are taken in by a carnival troupe headed by the great Willie Nelson (whose hit 2006 duet with Keith lends the movie its title). It’s a fantastical few minutes that seem to have been beamed in from another movie, but it serves the dramatic purpose of offering our protagonists a breather from their adventure. When the good guys leave the carnies behind it’s tempting to wish the movie would let ’em go and stay with Willie and his colorful friends instead.
Beer for My Horses’ chief attribute is that it knows what it is: a knockabout comedy spiked with explosions and punchups that traces its lineage back to the offhand 1970s romps of Keith’s Broken Bridges costar, Burt Reynolds. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, a fact reflected in its brief running time—a snappy 88 minutes in an age when practically everything in theaters is mercilessly padded in a misguided effort to be weightily cinematic. Beer for My Horses may not be brilliant, but it’s smart enough not to overstay its welcome.