Before he asked us to show him the money, before he told us that we couldn’t handle the truth and before he went crazy because there were aliens inside him that only a dead science fiction writer knew how to control, Tom Cruise threw a bottle of liquor in the air and it was magical. In another Pop Culture Defense, let’s take a look back at Mr. Cruise at the height of his power, ready to take on the world and impregnate Elisabeth Shue in ‘Cocktail’.
You could argue that ‘Cocktail’ is just a Jerry Bruckheimer movie that wasn’t produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (a mistake he’d correct by basically remaking the movie 12 years later in the form of ‘Coyote Ugly’). It has all the hallmarks of a non-explosive Bruckheimer flick: coming of age story with a good looking protagonist who overcomes their blue collar background to make it in the big bad world with built in pop song markers to help convey the tone along the way. But ‘Cocktail’ rises above it’s pay grade with clever writing, great over-the-top performances by it’s three leads and characters that make you want to drop it all and become a bartender…or a bar tender groupie. It’s more philosophical than ‘The Matrix’ and soapier than ‘You’ve Got Mail’ but in the end it manages to become one of my favorite late 80′s/early 90′s movies about bartending.
A Brief Synopsis of ‘Cocktail’: For not explainable reason, ‘Cocktail’ opens with Brian Flannigan (Tom Cruise) flying down the road in a jeep full of dudes trying to catch a bus to New York City (as Starship sings ‘Wild Again’, their contribution to the movie’s iconic soundtrack). Young Mr. Flannigan, having just left military service, is off to seek his fortune in the big city but soon finds that he’s not qualified for anything since he’s got absolutely zero work experience. Dejected after days of rejection, he decides to try business school and falls ass backwards into a job as a bartender alongside Doug Coughlin (played by the other Australian actor from the 80′s, Bryan Brown). Brian’s first night behind the bar is tough as waitresses dressed in TGIFriday’s outfits and sterotypical New York bar patrons scream drink orders at him (Do you know what’s in a Cuba Libre?) but he’s determined to have it all and decides to stick with bartending while still attempting to get a degree in business. We’re treated to a few quick scenes as Brian learns the difference between book smarts (like an assignment to write his own obituary….clever) and street smarts (Doug’s cavalcade of bar tricks and slights of hand). Doug’s lessons are a bit more than just suggestions. No, Doug lives by a series of “Couglin’s Laws” which amount to nothing more than the regurgitations of someone who’s spent a lifetime behind a bar and an afternoon or two in the back of a Philosophy 101 class. As Brian’s skills improve, we get those indelible shots of Doug and Brian behind the bar mixing drinks in tandem while flipping bottles back and forth between each other and dancing to “Hippy Hippy Shake”. It’s nothing if not incredibly charming. Books and actual learning put up a good fight but in the end, Doug and Brian find their ticket to the big time when one of their patrons offers them a job at “The Hottest Bar in New York City”. The boys jump at the chance to leave their local watering shit hole bar and work someplace with a velvet rope and every starving model within a 32 block radius. The bar includes everything you’d expect from a late 80′s NYC hot spot: huge bar, gorgeous people and weird poetry from both patrons and bartenders. It’s at this fancy beat poetry joint that the two meet up with the surest sign that any movie is about to get bat-shit crazy: Gina Gershon. Let me stop here and say that I don’t in any way dislike Gina Gershon. In fact, I think she’s a fantastic character actress who brings a certain something to absolutely every role she enters. But…if you’re just watching a movie one day and suddenly, out of nowhere and without warning, Gina Gershon comes on screen you can be certain that things are about to get weird. Gina Gershon, of “Bound”, “Face/Off” and lest we forget “Showgirls” fame is like the harbinger of bonkers. For God’s sake, the woman showed up on “Cop Rock”. How can that not be some kind of fascinatingly weird resume that deserves a special kind of respect? Regardless, Gina Gershon shows up as Coral, a photographer who manages to expose the distance between Brian and Doug with a single flash of her camera. Brian and Coral start dating (and by dating I mean sleeping together) and soon Doug begins to get jealous. But before things can completely implode, the guys discuss their hopes and dreams over a few breakfasts with Coral. Both of the guys want to someday own a bar (which Doug decides should be called ‘Cocktails & Dreams’ which is about as subtle as the bar in “Leaving Las Vegas” being called ‘The Whole Year Inn”) and Brian pitches the idea of going to Jamaica to earn the money to eventually buy a place in New York. Doug’s not much for the idea of “jet-set bartenders”, though. While playing basketball in the park a few days later (as you’ll do), Doug bets Brian that he can get Coral to leave him by the end of the weekend (as you’ll do). All it takes is for Doug to tell Coral that Brian’s been spilling secrets about their wild romps in the sack and she’s out the door like a shot. It’s the final straw and Brian decks Doug right into their fancy bar set up. Fade to black. But soon the scene fades up on a sunny Jamaican resort (while “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys plays) where Brian’s taken up a bartending gig. With the help of a bit too much booze and definitely too much sun, Brian has to ride to the rescue of Jordan Mooney (because ‘Moneybags McWealthypants’ would have been too obvious a name). Jordan’s an artist and waitress from New York who’s vacationing for an undetermined amount of time with her parents in Jamaica and is played by everybody’s favorite babysitter, Elisabeth Shue. Brian and Jordan start montaging together and soon are in 80′s movie love (walks on the beach, late night dancing in a beach club, ‘Blue Lagoon’-esque sexy time under a waterfall) but trouble lurks just around the corner. Doug shows up in Jamaica (with his new super hot, super rich wife in tow) and manages to get Brian to cheat on Jordan in less than 24 hours. Once again, the boys decide to bet on something classy. This time it’s Brian’s ability to close the deal with a cougar at the end of the bar named Bonnie. Jordan (of course) sees Brian leaving the bar with Bonnie at the end of the evening and flies home to New York City that very night (because that’s plausible). The next day, Brian discovers he’s been found out and decides that the best way to deal with the situation is to fly back to New York with Bonnie and become her bitch. She’s promised him that she’ll reward his puppy dog loyalty by giving him a sweet job at the company she runs but seems to only use that as a carrot to make Brian take her to art openings and get her, well, carrot juice. It’s at one of these art openings that Brian finally snaps and storms off, leaving Bonnie and determined to regain some semblance of his manhood. He hunts down Jordan and finds out two important pieces of information: 1) she’s loaded (as in with rich parents) and 2) she’s loaded (as in with baby). Brian’s determined to prove that he wants to be with Jordan (as long as nobody bets him to sleep with anyone else) but her dad is determined to make sure that Baby and baby stay in the corner. He offers to buy Brian off with $10,000 but (in a fit of 80′s movie self righteousness) Brian rips up the check and once again declares his love for Jordan…who’s not having any of it. Aimless, Brian seeks out Doug who’s parlayed his rich wife into his own nightclub, yacht and expensive glassware (wait, oh no). But once they’re alone, Doug reveals to Brian that it’s all a lie and that he’s not got “a pot to piss in”. He’s kept it a secret from his wife and drinks basically a whole bottle of liquor in a few gulps so Brian does the only responsible thing and leaves him alone with his thoughts and sharp objects. At her request, Brian takes Doug’s wife Kerry home where she uses the old “let’s talk about my husband’s problems upstairs” trick to try and get Brian in the sack. Thankfully, as if to prove that Brian now has some sort of moral compass, Brian refuses to sleep with his best friend’s wife and instead goes back to the yacht to check on Doug (not that there’s anything to worry about, cause ol’ Dougy is fine). Upon reaching the boat, he finds Doug in a pool of his own blood and it’s pretty obvious that he’s chosen to off himself. Brian responds with the appropriate level of screechy/screamy agony and…Fade to Black. After Doug’s funeral, Brian receives a letter from Doug (which is odd since Doug didn’t know Brian was back from Jamaica and back in New York, but whatever) explaining that he killed himself because he could no longer face the lie of a life that he’d created for himself. It’s just the push that Young Flannigan needs to once again purse Jordan (and her Mooney). He bursts past the doorman, flies into her parent’s apartment and screams out for her. There’s a brief “we didn’t have time to hire a fight coordinator” scuffle between Brian and Jordan’s father but in the end Jordan willingly leaves with Brian…even though his next infidelity is a mere bar bet away. The movie closes with Brian (now the owner of his own local shit hole bar called ‘Cocktails & Dreams’) climbing up onto the bar for one more poem about his unborn children. It’s at this point that Cruise begins to slip into his super terrible Irish accent (something that returns in “Far & Away”) and Jordan reveals that it’s not one baby, its twins! Because what’s better than one kid that a new small business owner can’t afford? Two kids! Roll credits.
Why is it a Pop Culture Defense? ‘Cocktail’ is a landmark movie for the simple reason that it’s all things to all people. Want a buddy movie? Check out ‘Cocktail’ for the complicated yet touching story of a boy and his bartender. Want a complicated romantic tale of young love? Check out ‘Cocktail’ for its overly soapy story of a boy and the girl he knocks up while on vacation. Want a ridiculously over-the-top movie that celebrates all of the excesses of the 80′s? Check out ‘Cocktail’ with it’s yuppies and Gina “I always look like the cat that just swallowed the canary” Gershon. Want a musical? Check out ‘Cocktail’ which is not only the movie that brought us dancing while bartending but is also the movie that introduced the world to ‘Kokomo’ (possibly one of the worst pop songs of all time) AND ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin (definitely one of the worst pop songs of all time). It’s the kind of movie that everyone could go see and enjoy for completely different reasons. Some people enjoyed watching Tom Cruise on a journey of self discovery that took him from the streets of New York to the beaches of Jamaica and back again. Others enjoyed watching Elisabeth Shue take her top off. See, something for everyone. It’s a not so serious movie that dealt with a lot of pretty serious topics like unwed pregnancy, alcoholism, suicide and Gina Gershon. But really, the movie achieves almost a cult like status for one reason: it’s made everyone try to flip a bottle of booze like that at least once. Admit it. At some point in your life, you’ve grabbed a bottle of something and attempted to flip it either in the air or behind your back. Most likely, you’ve done it with a bottle that was sealed and most likely you’ve failed, but you’ve tried it. That motion, that desire to see if you could try to pull of an amazing bar trick can be directly attributed in one way or another to the movie ‘Cocktail’ and for a cheesy 80′s movie, that’s saying something.
How does it look in the rear view mirror? Honestly? It looks insane. But add a little Vaseline to that mirror and you get a much happier, blurrier, tipsier view of a movie that struck at the height of the Tom Cruise craze. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Tom Cruise really did use to be the biggest star on the planet. ‘Cocktail’ comes in the middle of a stretch of five movies that solidified Tom as the absolute biggest star on Earth. He made ‘Top Gun’ (hate it), then ‘The Color of Money’ (love it), followed by ‘Cocktail’ (defending it right now), then ‘Rain Man’ (good movie, definitely a good movie) and finally ‘Born on the 4th of July’ all in the span of three years. Those are Micheal Jordan repeat championships caliber stats. Can you even think of another actor in the last 20 years who’s had a run of movies that big and that generally good in that amount of time? Before you say Julia Roberts or Will Smith, I say ‘Dying Young’ and ‘Wild, Wild West’. ‘Cocktail’ is literally lightning in a bottle. It’s Cruise’s star power, confidence and charisma that take something that should be awful (or at best adequate) and make it into something really special. Want proof? Check out this very simple scene from ‘Cocktail’ where Tom Cruise uses his newly found bartending skills to hit on a woman dressed as a muppet:
Seriously, that’s the guy movie equivalent of a scene with the main character singing into her hairbrush into the mirror but somehow, it all comes off as completely endearing. For me, performances like this are like a magic trick. It’s as if he’s using slight of hand to confound and distract us from the general shakiness of the movie around him. Kid goes from not bartending one day to fancy show-off bartending in the span of a few 80′s songs? Sure. Kid moves to Jamaica to tend bar at a resort only to meet and impregnate the true love of his life? Of course. Wise, truth telling older guide turns out to be incredibly dark “there but for the grace of God goes Flannigan” warning for the main character? Why the hell not! It’s all just window dressing and yet somehow it all works like a charm. You never even see how they manage to saw the lady in half and put her back together before you’re clapping wildly, ready for the next trick.
Final Thoughts: What’s the last piece of the puzzle to make any movie an almost instant classic? Quotable lines. And luckily, ‘Cocktail’ has more than a few that resonate in the lexicon. Whether you’re looking for one of Coughlin’s laws (“never tell tales about a woman, she’ll hear you no matter how far away she is” or “anything else is always something better”) or one of the “poems” Young Flannigan improvs while standing on the bar (my personal favorite being “I make drinks so sweet and snazzy / The iced tea / The kamakazi” simply because no matter how hard he tries snazzy and kamakazi don’t rhyme), the movie is full of lines that are just begging to be repeated in the proper situations. Couple that with a simple action that everyone wanted to try and repeat (like the dance that Uma Thurman does in “Pulp Fiction”) and a soundtrack that unleashed some terrible things on the world and you have a classic movie that’s very deserving of a Pop Culture Defense. ‘Cocktail’ stands the test of time with it’s brash attitude that dares you not to like it. Give it a try the next time you flip past it on a Saturday afternoon. Just don’t blame me when you’re singing Kokomo for the rest of the weekend. It’s a high price to pay, but it’s definitely worth it.