“Coughlin’s Law: anything else is always something better.”
The same could be said of Cocktail: anything else would go down better. For a movie about the bars, business, and relationships, it seems to understand very little about the basic underpinnings of bars, business, and relationships. At the same time, it has an amazing lack of self-awareness about the aspects it hits dead on. The movie is itself a kind of a flair bartending, parading out Tom Cruise and his cute (albeit sometimes manic) smile to distract you from the fact that you’re drinking the film equivalent of an underpoured, over-iced cocktail that’s all tonic and no gin. And while it might fail to get you drunk and goes down about as smoothly as a shot from the rails, as anyone knows, there are still some good times to be had at the bottom shelf.
While critics lacerated1 the movie (comparisons were made to Molotov cocktails2 and the “evil of banality3”), Cocktail helped spark an entire flair bartending movement4 and pulled in nearly $200 million at the box office worldwide, proving just how much people are willing to pay for a cheap drink. The movie tells the story of Brian Flanagan (Cruise) who, after leaving the Army, heads to New York in the hopes of becoming a Wall Street millionaire. When he can’t cut it on the interview circuit without a degree, he enrolls in business school and picks up a bartending gig to make ends meet. His boss/mentor Dough Coughlin (Bryan Brown) promises to make Brian a star and the two quickly work out a dynamic duo flair bartending act set to the tunes of Robert Palmer and John Cougar Mellencamp. Patrons are dazzled by the inefficiently poured drinks, Coughlin’s pithy and cynical “Laws,” and Brian’s bar-top poetry.
The two dream of opening their own bar: Cocktails and Dreams. Doug sees it in pink neon. Brian sees franchised in shopping malls around the country. And while they agree on the pink neon, Doug’s business plan consists of bedding a rich chick to bankroll the enterprise. Brian’s plan is to move to Jamaica for three years and bartend on the beach where they will surely accrue the needed thousands to open up their own bar in New York City. After a falling out, Brian heads to Jamaica alone, where he falls in love with a vacationing New Yorker named Jordan. While Brian shirks his work duties, Jordan abandons her friend with alcohol poisoning so that the budding couple can have a week-long sexcapade in and around the local waterfalls. But when Coughlin shows up in Jamaica with a thong bikini-clad millionaire, Brian gets roped into a cheap bet to bed a wealthy-looking cougar. While Jordan looks on in heartbreak and dramatically cuts short her trip to fly home that night, Brian gets swept up into a kept man relationship, waiting impatiently for his sugar mama to give him his big business break. And that’s just the start of the drama and bad decisions.
It’s easy enough to suspend the disbelief that thirsty bar-goers in New York would be not just obliging but wildly enthusiastic about waiting all night for a drink while Tom Cruise does the same act for hours on end. He’s cute. It’s fun. We get it. But it’s much harder to believe that a high-powered business executive would ask her vacation resort’s bartender to move in with her in New York after a one-night stand. Or that a twenty-something girl on vacation in Jamaica would mistake a beachside fling with her resort bartender for a committed, long-term relationship and feel subsequently betrayed when said bartender sleeps with another woman. Or that the same twenty-something would want to accept being disowned by her family to marry the betraying (and impregnating) bartender after he breaks and enters to declare his love and promises to support their son with his bottle-tossing career. Or even just that every single woman these middle-income bartenders seem to meet are all wealthy millionaires who’d love to bankroll their cocktails and dreams.
The movie starts out glorifying the bartenders for their bottle-flipping abilities, drunken wit, sexual prowess, and heroic visions of success and materialism. Then it attempts to show a darker side beneath the money grab. Doug’s filled his cocktails and his dreams: he snagged a rich chick and has his own bar, but he’s rolling in despair along with the cash. And while the movie tries to very quickly brush the blood and tears aside and distract us again with happiness and a wedding. Cocktails and Dreams – in pink neon! One can’t help but feel a sense of doom watching the final scenes unfold. Brian has also snagged a rich chick and owns his own bar thanks to her (*cough* parents') ever-flowing capital. But wait, is there a pattern forming here? The unsettling feeling that Doug’s protégé is walking down his path in more ways than one is made more unsettling when Jordan and Brian playfully banter about divorce at their wedding reception and then Brian shouts “Drinks on the house!” It seems like a harmless, even generous gesture, until you remember the first piece of advice Brian ever heard about the bar business is to never offer drinks on the house, that it’s a bar’s surefire road to failure.
But it’s just these moments that feel less like critiques than quick jokes that have an unintended dark side. Or maybe not. The movie is based on a book of the same title, written by Heywood Gould5, who helped adapt his original story of an older, skeezier Brian into the young and pearly-toothed Cruise part. Maybe the hint of demise is exactly what Gould intended underneath Brian’s wedding toast promise to “never ever get spooked again.” Regardless, Cocktail is dead-on about one thing: it’s all bubbles, laughter, cheers, and dancing until you get to the bottom of an empty glass. But lucky for us, there will always be a young Tom Cruise ready to pour another - and Round 2’s on the house!
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.