(SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.
Tom walked away with the 1988 Number One (Rain Man) and Number Nine (this) in the US, and offhand, it’s difficult to think of another example approximating Cocktail, wherein a major star has been the material’s only “merit” (Sleeping with the Enemy, perhaps, although that at least goes through the motions of being a thriller). But he, and his audience, was high from the biggest movie of 1986 (Top Gun) and another that was no slouch (The Color of Money). He had reason to be a strutting, cocky little twerp, and he duly revelled in it. My recollection of this movie, having seen it at the time and not thinking much of the actor, was dim. It featured Bryan Brown, who was always solid, and it was all about a cocky little twerp being even cockier and littler twerpish when he discovers a facility for bartending that takes him to Jamaica.
None of that was mistaken. I had no recollection that Brian Flanagan (Tom) was an army veteran, something surprisingly common in Cruise movies of the era (he carries arms of some description in Taps, Top Gun, Born on the Fourth of July and A Few Good Men), perhaps as some form of overcompensation. Of course, Brian isn’t exactly Jack Reacher, so if the opening sequence (featuring The X-Files’ young CSM, Chris Owen) hadn’t informed you of this, you’d be none the wiser. Perhaps if he’d become a bouncer rather than a cocktail juggler, there’d be a semblance of continuity. This is also Cruise’s first flirtation with Oirishness (Brian’s Uncle Pat owns a traditionally Oirish bar and spouts stoicisms like “Most things in life, good and bad, just happen to you”; clearly, a more proactive mentor is required).
Tom, one of the ’80s most indelible stars, however well he may have done for himself since, here tackles overtly the prevailing doctrine of that decade (not that it was any less so in any other decade, but it at least had the decency to wear it on its chin). Most likely, seeing others get there first had him casting about for his own era-appropriate material; he’d been up for Wall Street, but Stone quite rightly wasn’t going to wait a year while Tom made another movie. And Michael J Fox scored one of the previous year’s Top Ten hits with The Secret of My Success.
Cocktail makes that movie look like a jet-black, biting satire. You watch this, and you compelled to ask if the entire purpose of Cruise in this decade was to assess how morally bankrupt audiences were, and not just morally, but in terms of basic taste and all-round common sense. Like the at Business… musical, we first see him reading How to Turn Your Idea into a Million Dollars, after which he overtly rejects the lure of Wall Street (who reject him) and business classes (featuring Paul Benedict as a first-rate snot, and a fellow pupil who “wants to become the Donald Trump of the cake business”).
Maybe on the page there was something astute going on here. And maybe there still is, beneath the apparent lack of effort. There’s a message about the making the right kind of vacuous money with the right kind of vacuous girl as opposed to the wrong with the same, but… its vacuously told. Cocktail’s trying to fashion a fable about the right kind of empty materialism, which in its way is quite clever – spiritually bereft, but clever – if the point is deception. And it works. Cocktail was armed with a dynamite soundtrack – the Beach Boys and Bobby McFerrin reaped hits from it - taking a leaf out of the Simpson/Bruckheimer book, and audiences appeared to swallow the faux sincerity of Tom settling down with Jordan (Elisabeth Shue) and their twins, tending that Oirish bar, spouting rotten poetry and strutting like a performing peacock every evening (to Jordan’s dubious approval) while rejecting the drunken suicidal wisdom of Doug (Brown) and the toy-boy clutches of Bonnie (Lisa Banes).
Even before he fell into Mimi’s actual toy-boy clutches (during Cocktail’s making, and the rest is engrammatic), Cruise’s tailored choices were quite savvy. He had the sense to attach himself to roles where mentor figures would shine a positive light on his ability to hold the screen, if not necessarily to essay a likeable character. So we had Tom and Paul Newman, and then Tom and Dustin Hoffman (well not quite a mentor, but you get the idea). Here we have Tom and Bryan, with Doug representing a sub-Gordon Gekko/pre-Dead Poets Society wisdom-spouting barkeep. Brown is by far the best thing in the movie, but aside from a jaundiced attitude, there’s precious little that tell us why he tops himself, regardless of the suicide note, other than it’s necessary to spur Brian onwards along his character “arc”.
Cocktail has been accused of sexism (Time Out), but that rather excuses it the broad cross-section of its offences against humanity as a whole. True, Tom is at his most flagrantly “heterosexual” here (he beds Gina, Lisa Banes, Shue and nearly Kelly), but with all the erotic charge of an Action Man. And given the movie documents a comprehensively unattractive collection of people, there’s little sympathy to be shared around. Heywood Gould (screenwriter of Fort Apache the Bronx and The Boys from Brazil, and director of – yikes! – One Good Cop) purportedly penned an autobiographical piece, one that then went through forty drafts (maybe, charitably, it was better at the time of the first).
The proceedings culminate in Brian shepherding Jordan to safety (and cheerful “poverty”, albeit not for long, not with the world’s last barman poet holding court). Out of the clutches of her rich snob dad (Laurence Luckinbill, also Spock’s half-brother in the following year’s Star Trek: The Final Frontier, and they’re chalk-and-cheese performances). The picture desperately needed some conflict, some reason for investment in the outcome, but only gets it at this late stage. It also needed to engineer a scenario where Brian actually is a good guy, despite clearly being anything but in his consummate insincerity and capacity for an inveterate shithood. Say Anything charted the parental disapproval territory much more convincingly, only with a character you actually liked.
Of all little Tom’s foibles, surely the least persuasive is boisterous Tom (audiences swooned at this previously when he serenaded Kelly McGillis in Top Gun). The viewer is supposed to think he’s so cool and such a charmer, when in fact he’s displaying maximum twattage. We see that early on with his riposte to Kelly Connell (who announces “I am the world’s first yuppie poet”), and for some reason, the patrons just adore him. We also get to hear Cruise’s quite incredible stab at a Jamaican accent, which we can but hope gets him retrospectively cancelled. So no, I can’t account for Cocktail’s allure, and couldn’t then. In three years, he went from no one seeing him in Legend to everyone flocking to catch him in this crock. It’s as compelling a case for mass hypnosis in effect as ever I’ve seen.
Nobody else comes off too too badly, as its clearly not their fault (although Shue going on to replace Claudia Wells as Jennifer in Back to the Future Part II isn’t exactly the sign of a great agent). Cocktail was rightly a Razzie winner for Worst Picture and Screenplay, and was nominated for Worst Director and Actor. Donaldson was coming off No Way Out, and if you were to ask yourself why he’d do such a thing, the answer would most likely be that it provided the biggest hit of his career. He kept on working too, since Cocktail’s an anonymous movie and, as noted, it made money (ditto for DP Dean Semler).
It’s been suggested various other stars/subsequent stars were considered for Brian, including Bill Murray and Jim Carrey, but you never know how pie in the sky such suggestions really were. I could maybe have seen some of the smug of Bruce Willis of that era working in the role, but that would likely also have made it a less melodramatic affair, if equally cocky. Patrick Bateman admired the movie (titled Bartender in American Psycho), which is about right. Cocktail is dream fuel for psychopaths.