Mikeromanagement is a new column I’ve decided to introduce to the fold here. This is something that I’ve long wanted to take to the masses.
Here’s the jist: I watch something that is so loaded with utterly nonsensical or questionable material and/or so objectively terrible that I will write a detailed summary of the film—even more than you’ll find on Wikipedia. It won’t just be plot details: this is a stream-of-consciousness, analytical experience that I’ve intended as a tool to play with intricate details of the material I’ve picked up on.
Without making you wait any longer, here is my first subject under the Mikeroscope:
To break the noticeably uncomfortable silence, I clear my throat and say, “I thought you were very fine in Bartender. I thought it was quite a good movie, and Top Gun too. I really thought that was good.”
He looks away from the numbers and then straight at me. “It was called Cocktail,” he says softly.
“Pardon?” I say, confused.
He clears his throat and says, “Cocktail. Not Bartender. The film was called Cocktail.”
A long pause follows; just the sound of cables moving the elevator up higher into the building competes with the silence, obvious and heavy between us.
“Oh yeah… Right,” I say, as if the title just dawned on me. “Cocktail. Oh yeah, that’s right,” I say.
Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho
Last month, Patrick Ripoll of the Director’s Club Podcast vowed to clear up some of the gaps in successful movies of the 1980’s. Figuring despite the probable thousands movies I’ve seen I had some of my own, I made my own list. Moreover, I decided to take a stab at watching the entries on both lists.
Last Thursday, I arrived at Patrick’s choice for 1988, Cocktail. The ninth highest-grossing movie of the year became a punchline for its tacky portrayal of “flair bartending,” a talent that turns simple drink-mixing into a kind of performance art. While I do hail from a family with at least three talented bartenders, I’ve never had the pleasure of having a fine young man or woman prepare a margarita or a Long Island Iced Tea with the poise of an Olympic athlete. None of these slick tricks appeared in screenwriter Heywood (Rolling Thunder, Fort Apache the Bronx) Gould’s 1984 novel, which is ostensibly—based on his track record—a much darker story about a man approaching middle age.
Cocktail took a ride through the Touchstone Pictures car wash, meaning the gritty character study was whitewashed as Tom Cruise’s next starring vehicle. He was hot off a banner 1986, the massive success of Top Gun and a great performance under Scorsese in The Color of Money cementing him a worldwide superstar. The rest was not history—rather, the historical resurgence of the Beach Boys that culminated in their biggest hit, “Kokomo,” and their legendary guest spot later in the year on Full House, bringing the entire Tanner household to their concert after a dilemma of who D.J. could bring as her guest left the house divided.
At least that’s how Cocktail is remembered now—it brought back the Beach Boys. Watching the movie now, perhaps that fucking awful song was the only thing worth a damn in its wake. Directed with the smoky pizzazz of a wine-cooler commercial by Roger (No Way Out) Donaldson, Cocktail is the story of Brian Flanagan (our man Mapother), who just got back to New York City after a stint in the military. Savvy, charismatic and willing to work, he goes job hunting and finds out how shitty life is when you lack a college degree.
Right off the bat, the X-ray vision just detected a big pile of red, white and blue manure with the Gipper’s face on it. Education is a valuable thing, but whatever happened to the life experience you gain in the military? Doesn’t THAT qualify you for the job!? What good is the GI Bill? Look, I’m not accusing this movie of having a pro-military, Rambomania agenda, or trying to insult anyone who’s served or is in the military. I’d assume the novel painted him as a Vietnam veteran given the age of the character, but with it being Tom Cruise, the math doesn’t add up at all. He does enroll in business school, so he has that going.
Anyway, his travels take him to a TGI Friday’s in the Upper East Side, where wise bartender Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown, giving this movie a nice big glass of class) is closing up shop. Doug hires Brian sight unseen, bringing him into a world where alcohol is king and a mystical beverage called the Red Eye—a mix of beer, raw egg and tomato juice—is an all-purpose cure. He also lives by the code of “Coughlin’s Rules,” a sort of bartender Zen that Dalton would applaud. Doug refers to bars as “saloons,” like some kind of Old West badass who’d fit right in with Al Swearengen. Brian, welcome to the world of bartending, where you serve drunks in comically baggy shirts.
Now, maybe I’m being overly realistic here, but there’s a little thing called bartending school that one must attend before becoming a real bartender. My older half-brothers made it through and they’d made a living out of it. In fact, the eldest actually did it before this movie had come out. Meanwhile, my cousin failed on some minor error, sending him into the wonderful world of selling booze. The heart of the matter (Don Henley wrote that for this entry) is that bartending may sound like a brainless career, but it’s one of those things where you need to know what you’re doing.
And Brian does not know what the fuck he is doing on his first crowded Saturday night. It’s rush hour on the 101 freeway bad. He’s trying to balance all the beer bottle openings and the angry Brooklynite demanding white wine and he keeps checking the bartender’s guide because he has no idea what a Cuba Libre is, which leads to Brian exploding on the waitress, “YOU BITCH! Why can’t you just say it’s a RUM AND COKE!?” He then gets a taste of his playboy side when he detects “serious ‘fuck-me’ eyes” from a seemingly single lady—who we then learn then isn’t.
Today, the kid would have been fired on the spot for fucking up orders, co-worker abuse and sexual harassment, but we’re okay because this was another time. An 80’s time.
Instead, Brian is completely won over by the concept of this Friday’s place (its name isn’t mentioned in the film, by the way, but you bet your ass it’s one of them). He decides to use the idea of spreading these things all over shopping malls in the nation for a business project, which leads to one of the sillier and more underutilized subplots of Cocktail: Brian’s coming of age with capitalism.
Look at the nose and lecherous face on that motherfucker. That’s Brian’s professor. He’s already frustrated with the class’s presentations, which include a proposal for pet cosmetics (PETA would have a heart attack) and a frumpy housewife who’s torn to shreds for her aspirations to be “the Donald Trump of the cookie industry.” Then, he fails Brian for wanting to take TGI Friday’s national because of all the subpar food and “stale beer” they serve. That professor was not a trailblazer.
So, after some more success at Friday’s dancing to the Georgia Satellites’ “Hippy Hippy Shake” cover, Doug and Brian get recruited for a gig at some club called Cell Block, a nightclub modeled after a prison. Cold, gray, bleeding sex—kind of like the energy that Brian Flanagan brings to his career. Patrick Bateman himself would probably pick up hookers and do blow in the bathroom at this joint.
In fact, I should also mention this is arguably the Tom Cruisiest Tom Cruise performance of all time. People tend to hate on Tom Cruise for being one-note and cocky, something that Brian Flanagan manifests entirely without any other emotions. It’s the Tom Cruise that Christian Bale cited as his inspiration for his American Psycho performance. The Tom Cruise that Ben Stiller has lampooned on multiple occasions, with his hyena laughs and feats of deluded narcissism. He does this sort of thing in Top Gun and Days of Thunder, but those are counterbalanced by the vehicular fetishism that comes along with the verve of Tony Scott’s direction.
I love the guy—his debut in Taps is killer. He’s great in Risky Business. He’s an equal to Newman in The Color of Money, to Hoffman in Rain Man. Born on the Fourth of July, Interview with the Vampire, Magnolia, Collateral—what he brings to movies like that is a distinctively manic wavelength that nonetheless comes across as charming and magnetic. I should also probably express my unbridled love for Jack Reacher, where he commands a stellar presence in the sort of thing McQueen or Eastwood would have done in the 70’s. All of you haters who complained about casting a 5’7” guy in a role Dwayne Johnson was meant for—shut the fuck up. That movie kicked ass. End of tangent.
During the first Cell Block scene, clubgoers gonna clubgo when all of a sudden a nerd in the strongest sense of Donald Gibb’s growls shows up—a self-described “yuppie poet” who does some shit about Wall Street. His poetry is a bunch of bullshit, so Brian challenges him to a poetry slam. His bartender rhymes are him reworking the manual into some kind of colorful medley to make a lot of cool-sounding drinks sound cool until you try them. It’s such a weightless scene but it shows how off the wall Brian’s desire to be King Shit Bartender of the Universe is. If you’re gonna do that, do it in style with some Tone Def Jam Poetry!
So Gina Gershon shows up. I’ve had a crush on her since Face/Off turned me into the psycho action-movie lover I am today when I was 9. She’s Coral, a leather-clad Rolling Stone photographer who becomes a sexual conquest of Brian (and, later, Doug). How do we know she’s a temptress? She orders a drink called The Orgasm from Brian. Guaranteed, she gets lots of those in the sack from him. Did I mention her name is Coral?
She tears Brian and Doug apart, but she puts the meat of the movie in motion, as Brian and Doug decide to take their bartending show to the tax-free tropical money tree of Jamaica…
And at this point of this post, I’ve spent all this time discussing what is effectively the first 30 to 40 minutes of the movie, give or take. That first third in New York is the most entertainingly terrible segment of the film, which plays like the next year’s Road House without the action and is filled with spoon-fed Reaganomics bullshit to set up the midsection and a rollercoaster of 1980’s clichés:
- Images of a dry-iced, moody, trenchcoated urbania straight from the video for “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” by Genesis
- Tacky montages
- A tackier soundtrack of synth music and Top 40 hits from Robert Palmer and Starship—aside from Palmer and Ry Cooder’s cover of “All Shook Up,” this is probably one of the worst hit soundtracks of the 1980’s
- 26-year-old Tom Cruise
Before I do go on with this next part of me dissecting the movie, I’d like to acknowledge the greatness of Bryan Brown. I feel like this and F/X were the only grasps that major American audiences got on the lean, chummy Australian. Cruise plays Brian Flanagan as an unlikable douche, so he needs the Doug character to balance that shit out. Cocktail has as much pulse as a morgue slab without his performance, a flawed, weathered middle-aged man trying to make sure the kid under his wing doesn’t repeat the same mistakes he did—even when they keep making bets on women and boxing matches that could put their friendship at odds for life. Save for a part in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and some assorted TV work including a two-episode stint on The Good Wife, Bryan Brown hasn’t been up to much. Seriously, Quentin Tarantino needs to get this man in his next picture, and in a plum leading role—not like, say, the mining company guys from Django Unchained.
Okay, so they go to Jamaica. That’s when “Kokomo” kicks in and, I am sorry to any folk reading this, fuck that song to the Bermuda Triangle where it doesn’t exist anymore. The reason it sucks is because you can’t take a bunch of surfer-dude rockers from California and try to reformat them as Caribbean bums. For the good-natured rock-and-rollers that gave us “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Get Around” to go all adult contemporary on our asses was a travesty.
It’s like a congregation of Jimmy Buffett impersonators joined by Bobby McFerrin on Valium, at which he sounds like that tortoise Bugs Bunny always lost races to. Not even the almighty Jesse Katsopolis should have been so welcoming of the Beach Boys on that Full House episode. He should have tried to pull Brian Wilson’s Zach Galifianakis beard off and use it as hair extensions to further the power of his mullet. (Oh, did I mention “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” also shows up in on the soundtrack? Bush/Quayle ’88 baby!)
Cocktail turns into a bit of a slog once they hit Jamaica (mon). Brian gets to hit on older women and Doug gets to bang a scantily-clad Kelly Lynch that he impulsively marries. Enter Elisabeth Shue as Jordan Mooney, spoiled rich kid whose businessman father is vacationing. Brian takes a liking to her fast, as, why not, Elisabeth Shue (another underutilized actress who is great in anything from Leaving Las Vegas to Piranha). Brian courts her but doesn’t win her over until this whole speech on cocktail umbrellas that leads to a sexy time montage. Jordan gets her one-piece off and there’s tremendous side boobage and they get it on under a waterfall, then by a fire. As an 80’s movie, especially a Touchstone one, it’s very soft and kissy and not even Cinemax After Dark material. I’m sure the XXX version of the movie went all the way, and it probably didn’t even need a title change—and if it did, it’d be Cocks in Tails or something like that.
Unfortunately, that romantic night gets tainted because Brian turns MILF Hunter shortly after the tryst, leaving us on a cliffhanger at the hour mark. Boy, does this thing get overwrought when shit gets back to New York. Brian ends up boy toy for Bonnie, a socialite in a loveless marriage. In other words, a trite retelling of American Gigolo. Who gives a shit? That is, until he accompanies Bonnie to a swanky Manhattan art show, where Brian insults a sculptor’s attempt at a cockroach. Wild fisticuffs ensue, which would have resulted in the sculptor and Brian out of the joint in handcuffs.
Apparently, nobody told me this was a movie from the Last Action Hero universe, so the relationship breaks off and nobody is arrested. No further damage is done. And this bit sets up the third act of despair, despair, despair. Here, Brian Flanagan ceases to exist as a sympathetic protagonist, even an antihero. He’s aggressive, head-up-his ass confident despite the fact that:
- He’s burned his bridges with three love interests.
- He forcefully tries to win back Jordan at her waitress job. Her retaliation: turning Brian into some kind of hideous potpourri of condiments and leftovers.
- Jordan’s overprotective father hates uneducated men, and sees Brian as such despite his mastery of the art of juggling bottles of hard liquor. Not exactly a talent that helps on college applications and entrance exams.
- Brian confronts Jordan like an abusive pimp, or a raging, jealous husband—and the tension is relieved when Jordan drops the bomb that she’s pregnant! For a sex machine like Brian, he can’t even use a fucking condom like he’s an utter barbarian or Jack Nicholson, who once claimed he’d rather “cohabitate with a warm garbage bag” than don a rubber. At least Jennifer Jason Leigh got an abortion in Fast Times.
- Kerry (Kelly Lynch) tries to fuck Brian, and he actually finds the dignity to not act on her advances out of respect for his mentor…
- Who, despite the company of many philandering women, went broke on a bad gamble for their proposed bar, Cocktails and Dreams.
Doug confesses “The only thing I know about saloons is how to pour whisky and run my mouth off.” That he had no idea of insurance, safety regulations, utilities, building codes, payroll, or even SALES TAX. How the fuck do you not factor in SALES TAX!?
Let me give you the CliffsNotes version of this: HE HAD NO FUCKING IDEA OF HOW TO RUN A BAR OTHER THAN WHAT BOOZE HE WAS SUPPLYING. Ergo, realizing that his passion in life is one he only knows at face value, he commits suicide on a houseboat, penniless and outcasted from the world.
Cocktail is so broken in terms of morality that even the mentor figure is a fucked-up deadbeat. Had the film been darker, perhaps this would be acceptable. But let me reiterate the “Touchstone Pictures car wash” theory from earlier. Of course, Touchstone was Disney’s distribution imprint for their adult-oriented fare. We can have Michael Eisner to thank for that. Say what you will about putting Disney on a corporate track around the same time, but Eisner—alongside Jeffrey Katzenberg—worked their magic under Touchstone the same way they had at Paramount.
At that time, they had an uncanny savvy to do four-quadrant, PG-rated blockbusters and concurrently hit box-office jackpots on R-rated movies. Partial thanks to Eisner enemy and Paramount executive and then mega-producer Don Simpson, they took great advantage of the budding MTV market and churned out plenty of blockbusters with at least one megahit single: An Officer and a Gentleman. 48 Hrs. Flashdance. Beverly Hills Cop.
That strategy was copied over at Touchstone, with hit singles showing up in their movies—Eric Clapton’s “It’s in the Way That You Use It” from The Color of Money, Mick Jagger’s eponymous theme for Ruthless People. Movies that didn’t have singles accompanying them even boasted big hits: Down and Out in Beverly Hills has Talking Heads’ rendition of “Once in a Lifetime” from Stop Making Sense prominently featured, and Richard Dreyfuss preps dinner for Madeleine Stowe to Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” in Stakeout (it may have been the other way around, that’s a mediocre one).
Cocktail was like a perfect storm of the Paramount magic, with an enormous hit soundtrack and a slick, benign product to sell to the masses for the summer of 1988. And hey, Tom Cruise is the lead, so who gives a shit? The songs were great. They sold tickets. People went for Cruise and the bartending. Nobody fucking cared about Cocktail’s lack of merits—it was a hit of its time because of its star and its music.
Here’s the top 10 highest grossing movies of 1988:
- Rain Man
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit
- Coming to America
- Crocodile Dundee II
- Die Hard
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
With the exception of Crocodile Dundee II, these are all good to great movies, and I’d say Die Hard, Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun, Rain Man and Beetlejuice are justifiable classics. Looking past that point, all of these films with the exception of Cocktail were propelled by critical and commercial word of mouth and/or stars who could open a movie and keep it in theaters for months. Cocktail sorely lacks that former element. It’s all flair (no pun intended) and no substance, and it does it in such a spectacularly awful way that, like a horrific vehicular accident gone viral on YouTube, your curiosity can only get the best of you to just watch.
And it’s that kind of pandering and star security that allows Cruise to fight off a group of hotel security guards like it’s Final Fight or something in the climax so that he can profess his love to Jordan. He proposes to Jordan, who immediately accepts in spite of her not-really boyfriend having just beaten the shit out of a group of innocent men. The ending is at the now-open Cocktails and Dreams bar, where Brian and Jordan are happily married like this is some kind of fucking Shakespearean comedy. Brian does some poetry—then he finds out he’s knocked up his one-night stand with twins! Surely, the marriage doesn’t last. I give it three years tops.
Cocktail is a cataclysm, easily the worst movie Tom Cruise has ever made and one of the most puzzling box-office smashes of the 80’s. Had he gone straight from this to Days of Thunder, bypassing his incredible work in Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, his career would have been relegated to lower-budget schlock and eventually dumped onto a steady diet of sub-direct-to-video and made-for-cable purgatory in the 90’s. Like Brian Flanagan, it holds in its possession a laundry list of deplorable qualities—greed, vapidity, misogyny, promiscuity, and one of the ugliest, most disgusting displays of vanity I’ve ever seen. No producer, writer, director or actor would have intended this kind of discomforting content over 25 years ago. Luckily, “Kokomo” would probably fail to crack the top 200 iTunes downloads, or worse yet, it would be some bad dubstep or rap-infused variation.
On a revisionist dime, Cocktail is deeply abhorrent. Its thematic material—let alone the bubbly treatment of it—would never get the kind of care in the modern film industry, with so much sensitivity for feminism and even racial politics, given the hints of Jamaican stereotypes the pop up during that bit. For many readers who saw it in 1988, perhaps it was a fun time, for others, it sucked then-and it sucks now.
Don’t take the over 3,000 words I have now invested into this piece as a reason to avoid it. I’d recommend watching it if you can stomach the cheese and deviancy on display—even if this probably sounds a hell of a lot better than Cocktail is. I’ll catch you all on the other side of the bar, and we can toast Red Eyes together.
When it pours, I reign. Make sure you like the official Facebook page for The Pleasuredome too, and follow the official Twitter feed at @ElPleasuredome. You should also follow me at @MikeDrewFlynn on the talking-birdie site too.