“The bartender is the aristocrat of the working class”

Cocktail (1988, Roger Donaldson)

Many years ago, in a grotty pub in Hemel Hempstead, I worked behind a bar. Before starting, I had visions of myself juggling bottles and mixing drinks in the manner of flair bartender Brian Flanagan, as portrayed by Thomas Mapother IV (stage name: Tom Cruise). Nubile young women would surely salivate at my dexterity… The reality proved somewhat different and I only lasted a couple of weeks. Some people claim that films (and other cultural works) don’t influence our behaviour – I can readily disabuse them of that delusion.

It’s the late ’80s. Brian Flanagan (working class) is fresh out of the army and wants to work on Wall Street. He doesn’t get anywhere. So he takes a job as a barman and, under the tutelage of Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), becomes a star ‘flairtender’ on the Upper Eastside. Yada yada yada… He ends up marrying Elizabeth Shue (high class) and opening his own bar.

Cocktail is not a film with a high reputation. On Rotten Tomatoes it scores a meagre 5% approval rating. Sample quotes from critics include: “If they gave you this in a bar, you’d send it back,” and, more simply, “Very, very stupid.” However, the audience score hits 59%. Why the disparity? Gabriel Byrne once said, “I think critics like to put movies into boxes.” He’s right. And the two most common boxes are the one marked “Good Film” and the one marked “Bad Film”. There’s little room for ambiguity or complexity of response. Cocktail is essentially a piece of shit, and I can’t defend liking it. But, it has got something. At least the first 45 minutes have got something. OK, certain scenes in the first 45 minutes have got something.

These are mainly to do with the dialogue by Heywood Gould (from his novel). Bryan Brown is given some sharp lines and he reads them with a certain wry cool that I’ve tried (and failed) to incorporate into my own speech patterns.

Flanagan: “I’m looking for the manager.”

Coughlin: “What’s the problem? Did you find a hair in your quiche?”

Flanagan: “No, I’m looking for a job.”

Coughlin: “Ah. So, you’d like to put a hair in somebody else’s quiche.”

There’s also quite a bit of this:


Cocktail made $78million domestic back in 1988. Trust me, that’s a lot. For a film like this, it’s borderline farcical. People clearly liked it. But they wouldn’t admit that these days.

Sam Bowles


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