The Wistful Longing Under the Drink Umbrella: On Roger Donaldson’s “Cocktail” (1988)

Tom Cruise smiling at his bar in Roger Donaldson's Razzie Award winner, "Cocktail".

Imagine a guy whose life goals are to become a simple-minded millionaire and own a bar, albeit not necessarily in that order. How he gets there, though, is not by owning the bar, but by marrying a ‘rich chick,’ who will not only fund his shallow endeavors but also provide the down payment for the bar, or at least her father will, but we don’t know for sure. Do we care?

The 1980s spawned a plethora of bad films that rivaled the 1940s paint-by-number melodramas where the simple script is churned out with a particular star in mind. Enter in some friction where the guy goes off to hustle another woman for a while, but in the end love triumphs. After all, it’s not difficult to think you’ve met your soul mate while screwing for a week on the beach in Jamaica.

Cocktail stars Tom Cruise as Brian Flanagan (who I will just refer to as Tom Cruise throughout this review), a materialistic dullard just out of the service and desperate to open a bar and become a millionaire. He reads lots of ‘get rich quick’ books, but none work. He wants a high-paying job with influence, but his lack of a degree is getting in the way. Then he meets a seasoned bartender named Doug (Bryan Brown), who offers him a job. Doug also happens to be the only entertaining character in the film, and is full of lots of advice, like how a bartender is the ‘aristocrat of the working class.’ ‘The waitresses hate me,’ Tom Cruise says. ‘Wait till you’ve given them crabs. Then they’ll really hate you.’ Huh?

Tom Cruise staring behind a fence in Roger Donaldson's "Cocktail".
He dreams but can’t quite reach

The two toss bottles from behind the bar as they dance to rock music. They drink constantly, but are rarely drunk and Cruise, with his embellished lifestyle, maintains his physique despite not having enough time to sleep. Then, more bottles are tossed and shit happens and Tom Cruise meets a woman, beds her that same night, then heads to Jamaica to run his own bar after they break up due to Doug having also screwed her. Oh, the drama.

My readers are likely wondering why I bothered to review this dated schlock, and all I can say is nostalgia. I was 12 when this film came out and I remember wondering if this was the way exciting grownups lived. There are no consequences because there will always be someone there to find you, like Doug, who shows up at Tom Cruise’s Jamaican bar on his honeymoon with his rich, thinly clothed wife. She supposedly owns ‘half of Manhattan’ and chose to marry a bartender—OK. Given her emotional emptiness (she cheats on him constantly), the film never explains why she’d marry him in the first place.

Yet perhaps the most iconic aspect of this film, however, is the soundtrack featuring The Beach Boys’ song “Kokomo”. I remember winning a music store gift certificate from a radio station that my friend’s cat peed on afterwards but that did not stop us from still using it to purchase a cassette tape of this soundtrack. Maybe the cat was sending us a message.

Furthermore, all the women, save for Elisabeth Shue (whose name is Jordan but I will just refer to as Elisabeth Shue), are portrayed as materialistic bitches who pull their cigarettes from gold cases. Elisabeth Shue, however, is a sensitive ‘artist’ who meets Tom Cruise and the two engage in lengthy, ridiculous love scenes under waterfalls and on beaches that seem to have spawned from the mind of a 12-year-old girl or Tommy Wiseau. (Is this what life is like? And I thought Tom Cruise had to work a day job? Where does he get all this time? And how does he survive financially when it’s off-season? Oh, never mind.)

Tom Cruise dreaming of becoming rich in Roger Donaldson's "Cocktail".
We are surrounded by drink umbrellas

Then, Elisabeth Shue sees Tom Cruise walk off with some older, rich woman (because he felt forced to ‘hustle’ her when Doug bet him—OK) and so she flies back to New York heartbroken, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t pregnant and wouldn’t you know? She’s also rich! (That all the characters are in Jamaica but live in New York only shows how conveniently shoehorned this all is.) Tom Cruise tries to get her back, but she rejects him—dumping food on his head. Then, when he shows up at her parents’ Park Avenue penthouse, her daddy tries to write this ‘loser’ off with a $10K check, which Tom Cruise rips up to prove that he loves Elisabeth Shue and not her money. Oh, the depth. ‘I love him,’ she says. She takes him back. They soon marry and celebrate in—you guessed it—a bar and she’s not even showing. That was fast. Oh, and Doug commits suicide after drinking a $500 bottle of brandy once he realizes that the rich life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Tom Cruise then finds Doug’s body and runs his hands through the blood. That sounds like something anyone would do, right?

Criterion is currently featuring ‘Razzie Winners,’ and Cocktail is among them. This is one of those films that, while bad, is highly watchable and better now than in 1988 largely because we can see how unrealistic everything is. Owning a bar is hard work—the hours are long. But Tom Cruise’s character is so shallow and one-dimensional that when presented with the beauty of surrounding nature, all he can think about is how the guy who invented drink umbrellas must be a millionaire. If only he could be as clever….Hmm, is it reassuring to know you’re much smarter than a film’s protagonist?

What is so funny about Cocktail is that it doesn’t attempt to shy away from its emptiness, as it throws about terms like ‘rich chick!’ In the end, however, Tom Cruise opens his own Manhattan bar and hasn’t learned a thing. (Which takes a fortune, by the way.) He acts like a dick and still gets everything he wants, even the rich chick—now pregnant. ‘You pushed me too hard,’ he tells her. Dude, just give it up. So, while the film seems to have taken itself seriously at the time, it admittedly has a bit of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room quality about it, yet doesn’t quite reach.

Tom Cruise dancing and smiling at a bar in Roger Donaldson's "Cocktail".

All this makes me wonder about the source material, which is based on a novel by Haywood Gould—someone I’d never heard of. If you’ve read it, feel free to let me know what you think. And while Roger Donaldson’s directing is standard, it’s the writing that makes this film as bad as it is, as originally the film was meant to be a dark satire on 1980s materialism, but instead manifested into cute-boy romance schlock. Who thought this was a good idea? I can imagine several studio execs planning to push out a film featuring one of Hollywood’s top stars at the time, and this is the material they have. It’s one of those films where any of the characters (except Doug) could be played by someone else because hey—they’re all ciphers anyway.

Watching films like these can serve as a reminder that shoehorning characters for the sake of plot—not narrative, because that is different—leads only to surface-level experiences that, for a character like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, make no difference. Or as Ebert says, ‘Cocktail tells the story of two bartenders and their adventures in six bars and several bedrooms. What is remarkable, given the subject, is how little the movie knows about bars or drinking.’ Ah, yes, but what is life in Cocktail but the wistful longing under the drunken umbrella? Not even the filmmakers seem to know. Cocktail is a bad film, albeit not unenjoyable. Riddled with clichés, if you like camp and wish to look down on those from an earlier generation, then this is your film. And if you think you hate it now, just wait till it’s given you crabs.

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