Roger Donaldson’s film about the romantic escapades of a bartender was a critical dud back in 1988, but this particular teenager loved it. Why? It was the Tom Cruise factor; when I was a teenager, he was a role model that learned to do stuff; ride motorbikes, fly planes, pour drinks. As long as Tom was learning something, he was our guy, a surrogate whose success rubbed off on our own motivational thinking. Returning to it as an old friend in 2020, the effect was….not so much.
Brian Flanagan (Cruise) comes out of the army, although there’s little about his character that suggests military training. Brian doesn’t know what he wants to do, but he wants success. Studying for a business degree doesn’t push his buttons, but Brian falls under the influence of Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), who shows him how being a NYC bartender can help you get the girls and make a tonne of cash. They two become some kind of celebrity bartenders and go into business together, but Brian finds another level of success when he falls for rich-girl Jordan Mooney (Elizabeth Shue), but will her posho family’s disapproval scupper their plans?
Cocktail has a laid-back soundtrack (Kokomo, Don’t Worry, Be Happy), which I used to play while honing my own personal skills by throwing (empty) bottles in the air. But there’s not much cinematic about pouring drinks, even with the souped-up montages featured here, and Cocktail gets dragged down by the drama. The conflict with Coughlin is intermittent, and while there’s a bitter punchline, it doesn’t feel sufficiently earned; the original writer Heywood Gould felt that Disney/Touchstone ripped the knitting out of his original idea. And Brian’s real skill is performance poetry, which makes for some big scenes for Cruise, but doesn’t quite fit with his business acumen and blue-collar profession; he’s a soldier/businessman/bar-tender/lothario/romantic poetry expert? No wonder I was a confused teen with Cruise as my role model…
Cocktail’s big scene, where Brian rallies against Jordan’s family, still sings, but the unquestioning attitude of the film to his arrested development in terms of women is less than impressive. Cocktail is slick as snot as a film, and still works, but the main character’s development isn’t smart enough to put it in the top-rank of the star’s work, which developed greatly beyond this point. Link below.