Guilty Pleasure No. 15: Cocktail (dir by Roger Donaldson)


cocktail-original-uk-quad-poster-tom-cruise-elisabeth-shue-88-1229-p

For the past two months or so, Cocktail, a 1988 film that stars Tom Cruise as a bartender with big dreams, has been on an almost daily cable rotation.  A few nights ago, my sister Megan and I sat down and watched the film from beginning to end and we laughed ourselves silly.

Seriously, if there’s ever been a film that deserves to be known as a guilty pleasure, it’s Cocktail.

Cocktail tells the story of Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise), an apparent sociopath who, having just gotten out of the army, is now determined to become a millionaire.  During the day, he takes business classes but at night, he and his mentor Doug (Bryan Brown) are dancing bartenders.  While customers wait for drinks, Brian and Doug do the hippy hippy shake and toss bottles up in the air.  The crowd loves them and Doug educates Brian on how to be a cynical, opportunistic bastard.  (Myself, I didn’t think Brian needed any lessons but the film insists that he did.)

When Brian and Doug get into a fight over Gina Gershon, Brian ends up in Jamaica where he eventually meets both Jordan (Elisabeth Shue) and Bonnie (Lisa Banes) and has to choose between love and money.  (Guess which one he goes for…)  Gee, if only there was a way that Brian could get both love and money…

Why is Cocktail such a guilty pleasure?  Just consider the following:

1. Cocktail is an example of one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres.  It’s a film that attempts to give an almost religious significance to a profession or activity that, in the grand scheme of things, just isn’t that important.  Hence, Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown aren’t just bartenders.  No, instead, they are the linchpin that New York nightlight revolves around.  If not for the talents of Cruise and Brown, we’re told, thousands of people wouldn’t have a good night.  And then who knows what might happen.  They might go to a different bar and they might get served by less rhythmic bartenders.  Chaos and anarchy might be break out.  The living would envy the dead.  Fortunately, the super bartenders are there to save the day.  (Just consider the film’s tagline: “When he pours, he reigns!”  Really?)

2. In the pivotal role of Brian Flanagan, Tom Cruise gives a performance that seems to hint that the character might be a sociopath.  Whenever he speaks to anyone, he flashes the same dazzling but ultimately empty smile.  Whenever he feels that anyone is failing to treat him with the respect that he deserves, he responds with child-like violence.  When he drags Elisabeth Shue out of her apartment, he looks over at Shue’s father and snaps, “It didn’t have to be like this!”  It’s a line that makes next to no sense unless you consider that Brian is a pathological narcissist who is incapable of empathy.  “It didn’t have to be like this,” Brian is saying, “except you dared to question me so now I’m going to kidnap your daughter…”

3. In the role of Doug, Brian’s mentor, Bryan Brown gives perhaps one of the most openly cynical performances in film history.  While everyone else is earnestly reciting the script’s platitudes and trying their best to sound sincere, Brown delivers every line with a hint of resignation and an ironic twinkle in his eye.  It’s as if Brown is letting us know that, of the entire cast, he alone knows how bad this film is and he’s inviting us to share in his embarrassment.  But Bryan Brown need not worry!  The movie may be bad but it’s also a lot of fun.

4.  Brian and Doug become New York nightlife sensations by doing an elaborately choreographed dance as they mix their drinks.  The other people in the bar absolutely love this, despite the fact that it seems like all the dancing would mean that it would take forever for anyone to actually get a  drink.

5.  While bartending, Brian also takes a business class that is taught by one of those insanely elitist professors who always seem to show up in movies like this.  When he returns student papers, he doesn’t just pass them out.  Instead, he literally tosses them at the students while offering up a few pithy words of dismissal.  Seriously, this guy has to be the worst teacher ever.  No wonder Brian would rather be a bartender than a student!

6. After having a fight with Doug, Brian somehow ends up working as a bartender in Jamaica where he suddenly starts speaking with a very fake Irish accent.  The Jamaica scenes serve to remind us that — despite the fact his great-great-great grandfather did come from Dublin — Tom Cruise is one of the least convincing Irishmen in the history of film.

7. In Jamaica, Brian meets and falls in love with Jordan (Elisabeth Shue) but, because he’s a sociopath, Brian cheats on her with Bonnie (Lisa Banes), who is a wealthy TV executive.  Bonnie brings Brian back to New York with her but, unfortunately, it turns out that Bonnie and Brian don’t have much in common beyond Bonnie wanting a young lover, Brian being young, Brian wanting a rich woman to take care of him, and Bonnie being rich.  What’s particularly interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn’t seem to understand that Brian is essentially coming across like the world’s biggest asshole here.  I think we’re meant to feel sorry for him but all we can really think about is how Bonnie could do so much better.

8. Around this time, Bonnie drags Brian to a museum where Brian ends up getting into a physical altercation with a condescending artist.  It’s at this point that the audience is justified in wondering if Brian has ever met anyone who didn’t eventually end up taking a swing at.

9. But guess what!  It turns out that not only does Jordan live in New York but she’s actually rich as well!  And she’s willing to forgive Brian for being a sociopathic jerk.  Unfortunately, Jordan’s father objects to his daughter running off with a sociopathic bartender so Brian — as usual — reacts by beating up a doorman and then literally dragging Jordan out of her apartment.  One scene later and Brian and Jordan are suddenly married and Brian owns a bar of his own.  Where did Brian get the money to open up his own bar?  Who knows!?  At this point, all that’s important is that the movie is nearly over and, in order for there to be a happy ending, Brian must both be married and a bar owner.  That seems to be the film’s message: “Just stay alive for two hours and the film’s script will be obligated to give you a happy ending whether it makes sense or not.”

10.  Brian is not only a bartender, he’s a poet!  And, amazingly enough, bar patrons are willing to put aside their desire to get a drink so they can listen to their bartender recite poems like this:

” I am the last barman poet / I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make / Americans getting stinky on something I stir or shake / The sex on the beach / The schnapps made from peach / The velvet hammer / The Alabama slammer. / I make things with juice and froth / The pink squirrel / The three-toed sloth. / I make drinks so sweet and snazzy / The iced tea / The kamakazi / The orgasm / The death spasm / The Singapore sling / The dingaling. / America you’ve just been devoted to every flavor I got / But if you want to got loaded / Why don’t you just order a shot? / Bar is open.”

Seriously, how can you not enjoy a film like Cocktail?  It’s just so totally ludicrous and melodramatic and, best of all, it seems to have absolutely no idea just how over-the-top and silly it really is.  Both Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Shue seem to take their roles so seriously that you seriously have to wonder what film they thought they were making.

Cocktail is the epitome of a guilty pleasure.

Tom Cruise In Cocktail

Previous Guilty Pleasures:

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear

 

Dance Scenes That I Love: The Prom From She’s All That


I was shocked and saddened to learn, earlier tonight, about the tragic death of actor Paul Walker.  Though Paul is probably best known for appearing in The Fast and Furious Films, he also appeared in several other films, including 1999’s She’s All That.

Below, you’ll find my favorite scene from She’s All That.  And yes, it does involve dancing.  I was either 13 or 14 when I first saw She’s All That and I have to say that it gave me a lot of very unrealistic expectations about high school.  Imagine my disappointment when I went to my first prom and discovered that, despite the best efforts of both the DJ and myself, hardly anyone was actually interested in breaking out into a carefully choreographed dance routine!

But, I guess that’s why we have the movies…

44 Days of Paranoia #13: Quiz Show (dir by Robert Redford)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at a film that I recently caught on cable — 1994’s Quiz Show.

Directed by Robert Redford and based on a true story, Quiz Show was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture but lost to Forrest Gump.  Among those of us who obsess over Oscar history, Quiz Show is often overshadowed by not only Forrest Gump but two of the other nominees as well, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.  When compared to Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show certainly feels old-fashioned.  At the same time, it’s not quite as much of a sentimental crowd-pleaser as Gump or Shawshank.  Perhaps for those reasons, Quiz Show never gets quite as much attention as some other films that have been nominated for best picture.  However, taking all of that into consideration, Quiz Show is still one of the best films of the 90s.

Quiz Show takes us back to the 1950s.  The most popular show on television is 21, a game show in which two contestants answer questions, win money, and try to be the first to score 21 points.  The American public believes that all of the questions asked on 21 are locked away in a bank vault until it’s time for the show.  What they don’t know is that the show’s producers have instead been rigging the show, giving the answers to contestants who they feel will be good for ratings.

When Quiz Show begins, nerdy Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) has been the champion for several weeks.  However, both the show’s producers and sponsors feel that the untelegenic Herbie has peaked.  Hence, the handsome and charismatic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is brought on the show and Herbie is ordered to lose to him.  Reluctantly, Herbie does so.

john_turturro_quiz_show

Charles is initially reluctant to cheat but, as he continues to win, he finds himself becoming addicted to the fame.  Charles is the son of the prominent academic Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and his success on television finally gives him a chance to escape from his father’s shadow.  Indeed, the film’s subtle and nuanced portrait of Charles and Mark’s loving but competetive relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

ralph_fiennes_quiz_show

Herbie, however, is bitter over having to lose and has subsequently gambled away all of his winnings.  When 21′s producer (David Paymer) refuses to help Herbie get on another TV show, Herbie reacts by going to the New York County district attorney and publicly charging 21 as being fixed.  Though the grand jury dismisses Herbie as being obviously mentally unbalanced, his charges come to the attention of a congressional investigator, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow).

rob_morrow_quiz_show1

Goodwin launches his own investigation into 21 and discovers that the show is fixed.  (As the ambitious Goodwin puts it, he wants to “put television on trial.”)  Along the way, he also meets and befriends Charles Van Doren and finds himself torn between his desire to expose the show and to protect Charles from the bad publicity.  Again, the film is to be applauded for the subtle way that it uses Goodwin’s investigation of both Charles and Herbie as a way to explore issues of both class resentment and class envy.  Goodwin may have come from the same ethnic background of Herbie but it quickly becomes obvious that Goodwin has more sympathy for the genteel (and very WASPy) world that produced Charles Van Doren.  When Goodwin tries to justify protecting Charles, his wife (played by Mira Sorvino) responds by calling him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews” and it’s hard not to feel that she has a point.

1quiz3

While I greatly enjoyed Quiz Show, I do have to say that, on one major point, the film fails.  Try as he might, director Redford never convinces us that a rigged game show is really as big of a crime as he seems to be believe it to be.  Perhaps in the 1950s, people were still innocent enough to be shocked at the idea of television reality being fake but for cynical contemporary viewers, it’s hard not to feel that the “scandal” was more about Richard Goodwin’s ambition and less about any sort of ethical or legal issue.  Towards the end of the film, one character suggests that television will never be truly honest unless the government steps in to regulate it.  “What?” I yelled back at the TV.

Seriously, it seemed like a bit of an overreaction.

As I watched Quiz Show, I found it hard not to think about the reality shows that I love.  For instance, I know that The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are largely staged.  I know that the previous season of Big Brother was largely set up so that Amanda could win.  (And, believe me, if Amanda hadn’t sabotaged her chances by turning out to be a mentally unstable racist bully, she would have won and she would probably would have been invited back for the next all-stars season.)  I know that shows like Storage Wars and Dance Moms are “unscripted” in name only.  I know that reality shows aren’t real but my attitude can basically be summed up in two words: “who cares?”  Perhaps I would be more outraged if I lived in the 50s which, to judge from both Quiz Show and a host of other movies, was apparently a much more innocent time.

quiz-show-morrow-scorsese

That said, I really enjoyed Quiz Show.  A lot of that is because I’m a history nerd and, therefore, I have a weakness for obsessively detailed period pieces.  But even beyond that, Quiz Show is a well-made, entertaining film that features three excellent lead performances and several strong supporting turns.  If you love to watch great actors playing great roles then Quiz Show is the film for you.  Rob Morrow lays his Boston accent on a bit thick but otherwise, he does a good job of suggesting both Goodwin’s ambition and the insecurities that lead him to desire Charles’s friendship even as he tries to expose him as a fraud.  John Turturro brings an odd — if manic — dignity to Herbie Stempel while Johann Carlo is well-cast as his wife.  Best of all, Ralph Fiennes makes Charles Van Doren into a sad, frustrating, and ultimately sympathetic character while Paul Scofield is the epitome of both paternal disappointment and love as his father.  The film is full of great supporting turns as well, with David Paymer and Hank Azaria perfectly cast as the show’s producers and Christopher McDonald playing the show’s host with the same smarmy charm that he brought to a similar role in the far different Requiem For A Dream.  Perhaps best of all, Martin Scorsese shows up as the owner of Geritol and gets to bark, “Queens is not New York!”

Even if Robert Redford doesn’t quite convince us that the quiz show scandal was as big a deal as he obviously believes it to be, Quiz Show is still an uncommonly intelligent film and one that deserves to rediscovered.

QuizShowPoster

Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading