“Cocktail” is vibrant and shallow, a movie as inspired by its times as much as its so helplessly stuck in them. It thinks of itself as a blue collar dramedy, a supposed ode to the lesser working man who exists outside the 9-5 spectrum. But really, “Cocktail” is the late-night version of “Wall Street,” the only difference is that the charismatic, self-obsessed men are now standing on the other side of the bar.
Tom Cruise stars as Brian Flanagan, the same boyish, lady-killing archetype Cruise plays in every one of his 80s films, except he starts off with no particular skill set in “Cocktail.” He doesn’t necessarily have a desire for success as much as recognition, his ultimate goal isn’t to own a successful bar franchise but to have his bar in every shopping mall so people will know his name.
That’s impressive ambition, especially considering bartending wasn’t Brian’s first trade of chocie. When Brian moves to NYC, we’re greeted with a very 1980s montage of his job interviews with Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Television executives. Brian expresses his hard work ethic, recruiters say we don’t hire people without a college degree, wash, rinse and repeat until Flanagan treads into a filthy bar and asks for a job from the manager, Doug (Bryan Brown).
The sequence is meant to have us empathize towards Brian, as if all degree-earning folk of the world are members of some evil aristocracy conspired to keeping the common man down. This is especially evident in scenes of Brian going back to school, where he’s heckled and harassed by a slobbish business instructor. But in 2018, where bartenders often hold bachelors and baristas sometimes carry PhDs, Flanagan’s plight is implausible, especially considering how easily he walked into those Manhattan skyrises and asked for a job.
But just as Brian values easy recognition over difficult success, “Cocktail” cares more about fantasy than hard-earned cinematic realities. Here the film transforms from a potential, rewarding flick about one man’s struggle in the world to a self-aggrandizing fantasy about the trials and tribulations of bartenders. Doug teaches his padawan the tricks of the drinking trade, and before you know it, Flanagan is flipping bottles of vodka and rum as drinkers watch with unequivocal fascination.
Brian and Doug become something of local celebrities, accepting a job to work at a posh nightclub where even more people fawn over their poetic endeavors. A brief, bizarre romantic triangle entangles Brian, Doug and a alternative photographer named Coral (Gina Gershon). In the backlash, Brian departs the city for Jamaica, where the bartenders are haggled by skimpy beach blondes as they rake in a small fortune every day.
Jamaica had been established as something of a Gatsby green light, that exotic, far away place where city problems were extinct and bundles of cash brushed in from every high tide. But it feels so weird just how early and easily Brian achieves his Jamaica dream, like the film fast-forwarded through 30 or 40 minutes of plot without bothering to tell us.
But in Jamaica, Brian meets Jordan Mooney (Elisabeth Shue), on the opposite end of Coral on the female naughtiness spectrum. Jordan has the girl-next-bungalow vibe going on, and she and Brian hit it off before Brian randomly hooks up with another older woman. We’re left to believe that Brian didn’t care for Jordan at all, which would have been fine, but is troublesome considering the last act is focused on him trying to get her back in New York City. It’s like if “The Graduate’s” Ben Braddock didn’t follow Elaine Robinson to Berkeley but some random girl he didn’t really know that well…(okay, so it’s exactly like Ben Braddock following Elaine Robinson to Berkeley.)
“The Graduate” is able to get away with Braddock’s hopelessly romantic endeavors because we perceive him as somewhat of a less masculine man and Elaine as a smart, capable woman. But “Cocktail” drinks too much of the toxic masculine kool-aid, where Brian and Doug discuss their determination to be something of trophy husbands to rich ladies, while criticizing the very women who sleep with them too soon. Even the ladies in “Cocktail,” all portrayed as relatively strong individuals, immediately melt into mush when they stare into Brian’s bottled eyes. And what do Ben, Doug or any other macho men in the movie do when they can’t settle a squabble? FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
Jordan is a particularly interesting character, as she hides her wealth from Brian in hopes that the bartender will like her for who she is. But the entire series of events that reunites her and Brian are poorly conceived. If Jordan is so rich, why is she even working as a waitress at a restaurant? If Jordan’s dad is willing to pay Brian money to get out of her life, why is he upset when he thinks Brian came back specifically for money?
Even Doug, who becomes something of a mild-lottery winner after marrying a rich chick, makes a series of incomprehensible choices that lead to his downfall. And at the end, we’re left with a film that pats itself on the back for proudly speaking to the lower and the middle classes, for giving us a tale about a man who achieved success through a bottle, not a briefcase. But “Cocktail” leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, an undistilled story and an unintentional salute to 1980s greed and excess