The fact that “Cocktail” was able to make $78 million at the box office in 1988 is a testament to the star power then wielded by Tom Cruise. In the heady days after his success in “Top Gun,” audiences were willing to watch Cruise in anything, no matter how lifeless, uninspired, or drab. I believe that if “Cocktail” had starred anyone other than Tom Cruise, it wouldn’t have made seven dollars, let alone 78 million.
“Cocktail” was filmed as a prank on the part of Touchstone Pictures to see if people would pay to watch nothing more than 100 minutes of Tom Cruise pretending to mix drinks. (The original plan was to release two hours of surveillance-camera footage from a bar in Santa Monica, but Touchstone couldn’t negotiate the rights.) The prank worked: Despite overwhelmingly negative reviews and the obvious fact that the movie was about a man who pours small amounts of liquids into other small amounts of liquids, people came out in droves. Every time someone bought a ticket, the people at Touchstone Pictures laughed harder. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise, bless his heart, actually thought he was appearing in a serious movie.
Cruise plays Brian Flanagan, a young man fresh out of the military who now wants to become a millionaire businessman. He takes business and economics classes during the day and tends bar at night, having learned from his new alcohol mentor, Doug (Bryan Brown), the fine art of throwing bottles around in a flashy manner in order to impress drunk girls. Despite being only 100 minutes long, the film somehow manages to contain well over 20 hours of nonstop footage of Brian and Doug laughin’ it up while they mix drinks, with peppy rock tunes playing on the soundtrack and easily impressed bimbos packed around the bar to watch them.
I am imagining myself going to a bar and ordering a drink. Now I am imagining the bartender turning the production of my drink into a song-and-dance spectacle. Now I am imagining getting bored with my 15-second cocktail taking three minutes to make, and annoyed by the thought that I will probably be expected to leave a bigger tip as a token of my appreciation for this unappreciated service, and I am imagining myself giving up and going to another bar. If you wish to sell me alcohol, please provide it in a speedy fashion, is my point.
But the people in the movie apparently love the razzle-dazzle, and Brian is soon a very popular bartender. He and Doug get hired by a ritzier bar, where a yuppie recites a poem (really — it’s weird), whereupon Brian leaps upon the bar and improvises a poem right there on the spot. You will notice that he has once again found a way to delay performing his actual job, which is to pour drinks. And once again, his customers love him for it. I haven’t seen so many people reward incompetence since the 2004 presidential election. (ZOING!)
Doug, who is Australian and 15 years older than Brian, is not quite as popular. The movie has arranged this on purpose, lest we become confused about which male lead we’re supposed to root for. If they were equally young and handsome, what would we do?! We would become disoriented and uncomfortable and spill our popcorn as we stumbled out of the theater in search of more easily parsed entertainment.
Brian, still an entrepreneur at heart, wants to open a bar called Cocktails & Dreams, not realizing that this is the worst name for anything that anyone has ever come up with. Opening the bar will cost $75,000. Brian’s proposal to Doug is that they get bartender jobs in Jamaica, where the low cost of living and well-known Caribbean fondness for elaborately choreographed martini-preparation routines will allow them to raise the money in no time. Doug is all set to do this, but then he and Brian have a fight over a woman played by Gina Gershon whom Brian was sleeping with, but then she got mad (I think) because Brian told Doug that he was sleeping with her, or something. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. The point is, Brian goes to Jamaica alone.
We skip ahead three years, and we hear a verse from the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” little realizing that overexposure to this song on the radio would eventually drive us to murder. (What, I was the only one?) Brian is working at a beach-side bar, and the locals and tourists love his style. Doug shows up to insult him, which Brian takes as a sign of friendship, and they are buddies again. I’d like to say this doesn’t make any sense, but honestly, that’s more or less how male friendships work in real life.
Brian has been sleeping with a woman named Jordan (Elisabeth Shue), whom he met when her friend collapsed from alcohol poisoning and Brian had to call an ambulance, which means they have a totally cute story to tell their grandchildren. Jordan is a struggling artist from New York vacationing indefinitely in Jamaica. Brian insists over and over again that he doesn’t want a wife or children tying him down, and I guess Jordan finds these qualities attractive, because really, who wouldn’t?
But then Doug, who might be the devil, dares Brian to flirt with a rich woman at the bar. He bets Brian that he can’t go to bed with her. Brian takes the bet, succeeds at doin’ it with the lady, and when Jordan finds out she gets angry and flies back to New York. Brian follows her and explains that he HAD to go after the woman because Doug had DARED him to. That’s seriously the reason he gives. Somehow Jordan fails to be swayed by this logical explanation.
Now Brian is back in New York, still not wealthy enough to open Cocktails & Dreams, and stuck living as a kept man with the rich lady, whose name is Bonnie (Lisa Banes). His heart still belongs to Jordan, though, and he will stop at nothing to get her back, no matter how much Jordan’s father or Jordan herself opposes it. We’re supposed to find Brian’s actions noble and romantic, but the film’s major flaw is that Brian is actually an arrogant, narcissistic jerk, and has been from the start. He was cocky back when he had nothing to be cocky about, starting with a montage at the beginning of the film where he applies for various high-level jobs — advertising, finance, television, etc. — and tells his skeptical interviewers that his lack of experience and education is irrelevant because he’s such a go-getter. What kind of self-absorbed idiot barges into a Wall Street banker’s office and claims he should be given a job based on his enthusiasm alone? He’s just wasting everyone’s time — which, when you think about it, is what his drink-mixing tomfoolery is all about, too.
Do not trust your time around this man! He will waste it all!
“Cocktail” is about a bartender who dreams of one day opening a bar. Yet somehow it’s even more boring than that description makes it sound. Tom Cruise had earned a lot of public goodwill in 1988, and he was about to earn even more with “Rain Man” (released later that year), but did people love him so much that they’d overlook all his character’s flaws and watch a tedious movie about him anyway? Apparently so. The only thing more surprising is that I wrote this entire column without making a single Scientology joke.