Workers and Hustlers: Conservative Ideology in the Film Cocktail
Applying a Marxist lens to Cocktail, this essay underlines the contradictions inherent in post-Reagan “populist” conservatism and demonstrates how this ideology simultaneously celebrates and belittles the working class. Spoilers abound.
Workers and Hustlers
by Matt Gardner
The reactionary turn of U.S. politics embodied in the Reagan administration had an indelible impact on American popular culture, both in the 1980s and the decades that followed. As David Sirota argued in his book Back to Our Future, contemporary historiography blamed the unrest of the Sixties on the supposed liberal excesses of hippies and the counterculture, the antiwar movement, black civil rights activists, and the welfare state. These were to be remedied by a strong dose of conservatism, aiming to resurrect a mythical version of the Fifties. The New Right celebrated so-called traditional American values: patriotism, militarism, Christianity, the family, and – most importantly – free enterprise.
In reality, non-economic elements in the New Right’s worldview were always peripheral to the centrality of a revived neoliberal capitalism. Monetarist thinkers like Milton Friedman argued that the unfettered free market was the most efficient allocator of resources. Outside of the state security apparatus, government could only interfere in this self-regulating process. There was nothing new about these economic ideas, which merely rehashed pre-Depression shibboleths about the self-correcting market.
Right-wing political figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher soon institutionalized monetarism through radical programs of deregulation, privatization, aggressive attacks on unions and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Such blatant anti-worker policies – the real core of neo-conservative ideology – were justified through a political smoke screen that lauded patriotism, individualism and self-reliance. Anyone, it was claimed, could become rich and successful if they worked hard enough.
Roger Donaldson’s 1988 film Cocktail, produced near the end of Reagan’s second term, embodies the worship of naked capitalism that characterized the 1980s – a decade that completely missed the irony in Gordon Gekko’s infamous declaration that “greed is good.”
The story of young bartender Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise), Cocktail mythologizes the self-made entrepreneur at the root of the neoliberal ideology that dominates mainstream culture to this day. But even as it extols the glories of wealth and free market capitalism, the film has an ambivalent relationship to the working class.
In Marxist terms, Cocktail documents Brian’s journey from proletarian to petit-bourgeois. Beginning as the humble bartender of a low-rent New York City tavern, Brian dreams of wealth and fame. By the end of the film he realizes his goal, opening his own bar (appropriately called “Flanagan’s Cocktails and Dreams”) and becoming a successful small business owner. While he has not turned the bar into a nationwide franchise and joined the ranks of the big bourgeoisie, Brian is nevertheless pushed much further along the road to this dream than he would be if the film maintained any connection to economic reality.
At the same time as Cocktail pretends to identify with ordinary workers, it revels in the same ruling class worldview that ridicules the working class as unsuccessful losers. This paradox is encapsulated in a diatribe by Brian’s world-weary mentor, Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), upon re-encountering his protégé at a bar in Jamaica:
Doug: Biology is destiny [...] There are two kinds of people in this world, the workers and the hustlers. The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle. You, my friend, are a worker [...] It’s there, ingrained in your immigrant blood. Look how tasty your cocktails are, how clean you keep your bar. Why man, you actually take pride in your work.
Brian: I do not.
Doug: Is he or isn’t he a great bartender?
Brian: Listen bozo, if you think I’m stuck in this gig…
Doug: Face it, you’re a career proletarian. You’ve been standing in a puddle so long you’ve got wet feet.
That dichotomy – of celebrating ordinary workers in theory while belittling them in practice – is the bread and butter of the modern conservative movement. The contradiction is expressed in the self-loathing of many working class conservatives: Brian sees blue collar work as an embarrassing way to make a living, a placeholder until he can gain respect through the acquisition of vast riches.
While income inequality is acknowledged in the film, the question is never how to achieve a more equitable distribution of society’s wealth, but rather how the characters can enrich themselves. Brian and Doug maintain self-respect only by viewing themselves as better than the rest of the working class, destined by virtue of their talents and their profession to rise above the rabble and one day join the ranks of the Manhattan bourgeoisie:
Doug: Within one square mile of this saloon lies the greatest concentration of wealth in the world.
Brian: Yes, but how is a bartender going to get his hands on any of it?
Doug: A bartender is the aristocrat of the working class. You can make all kinds of moves if you’re smart. There are investors out there, there are angels, there are suckers, there are rich women with nothing to do with their money. You stand in this bar and you can be struck by lightning.
Brian’s attitude reflects the class contradictions at the heart of modern conservative ideology, recently exposed in the Republican presidential primaries. At the time of writing, the class dynamics of the primaries have thus far resulted in a standoff between blue-blood Mitt Romney, quintessential representative of the moneyed Establishment, and his rivals, equally beholden to the bourgeoisie but who nevertheless claim to speak for “populist” conservatives (a contradiction in terms).
The heroic figures of popular entertainment in recent decades typically draw upon conservative tropes, regularly seen in action films and today informing the Fox News conception of “real Americans” as distinct from “liberal elites”, that inculcate ruling class ideology into unsuspecting audience members by paradoxically identifying that ideology with the common man. Such indoctrination plays upon crude political stereotypes typically advanced by right-wing culture warriors.
The conservative is often portrayed as a hardworking, down-to-earth regular guy, preferably from the rural heartland of America – religious, patriotic, supportive of the military, interested in cars, sports, girls, and rock ‘n’ roll, socially conservative. Beverage of choice: beer.
By contrast, the liberal is seen as an effete, city-dwelling elitist – secular, leftist, “America-hating”, educated, antiwar, socially liberal. Beverage of choice: wine and lattes.
The 1980s particularly revelled in this contrived image of conservative manhood, represented in music by Bruce Springsteen (despite the fact that Springsteen himself was a stalwart defender of progressive causes and opponent of Reaganism) as well as on film through the larger-than-life action pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. Cocktail draws heavily on this idealized conservative masculinity.
At the beginning of the film, as Starship’s pop-rock anthem “Wild Again” blares on the soundtrack, the Cruise character speeds down a rural highway with his fellow soldiers in a car festooned with American flags, chasing the Greyhound bus that will take him to New York.
It is established that Brian has recently been discharged from the army. Although the particulars are vague, his military past nevertheless permits him to occupy the moral high ground as a patriotic “real American”. No contemporary U.S. military conflicts, such as the invasion of Grenada, are specifically mentioned. But this badge of patriotism, identified with the military, allows Brian to challenge his uncle: “Your nephew comes home from serving his country and he doesn’t even rate a beer on the house?”
Upon his arrival in New York, Brian immediately stops off at a bar owned by his Uncle Pat (Ron Dean), who gives him an impromptu lecture on how to become a successful capitalist. Uncle Pat relates how the Mets won the 1969 World Series. When a patron named Eddie suggested free drinks to celebrate, Pat gave him a violent lesson in the spirit of free enterprise:
Eddie: He whacked me with a club. Almost knocked the eyes out of my head.
Brian: That’s your way of making money?
Uncle Pat: You outwork, outthink, outscheme and outmaneuver. You make no friends. You trust nobody. And you make damn sure you’re the smartest guy in the room whenever the subject of money comes up.
Brian: I don’t know, Uncle Pat. Doesn’t sound like too much fun to me.
Pat: Fun? You want fun, you go play at the beach.
As the film continues, it becomes clear that this mentality of ruthless capitalism offers no capacity for human warmth. While Brian and Doug imagine creating their own bar together, their friendship is soon torn apart by vicious competition – not over money, but over a woman.
Brian initially has dreams of making it big on Wall Street – at one point, writing his imaginary obituary for a class assignment, he envisions the following ideal future for himself in a narrative that repositions pre-Depression oligarchs as Randian heroes:
Brian: Brian Flanagan…Senator Brian Flanagan…billionaire governor Brian Flanagan, whose self-propelled meteoric rise to wealth and fame would have made even J.D. Rockefeller envious, died early yesterday morning at the age of 99 while bedding his 18-year-old seventh wife Heidi, who is recovering from exhaustion at the local hospital and will be unable to attend the funeral.
However, through a series of unsuccessful job interviews, he finds that in the Land of Opportunity, there are no such opportunities even for a young go-getter like himself in the absence of a college degree:
Brian: I’m willing to start at the bottom.
Job Interviewer: You’re aiming too high.
As a result, Brian enrols in some business courses and soon finds himself held captive by a monstrous caricature of a professor who delights in verbally abusing and humiliating his students.
The highly negative portrayal of educators in this film reflects the broader anti-intellectualism of the conservative movement. Just as Marxists, university professors, climate scientists and other opponents of the conservative agenda tend to be smeared as “liberal” elitists out of touch with the real world, Brian responds to his professor’s description of him as a “dreamer who can’t take the criticism” by attacking the snooty, mean-spirited academic as someone who “hides here because he can’t hack it in the real world.”
Later, Brian confides to Doug that “not a goddamn thing any one of those professors says makes a difference on the street”, further driving home the irrelevance of higher education. At one point, an English professor tells his class, “I realize I’ve got a class of budding capitalists here, that most of you are seeking the fast track to a career in investment banking or some other socially useful pursuit.” Viewed from the age of credit default swaps, massive financial fraud and government bailouts, it remains unclear whether the teacher is serious or not.
The young hero dreams of franchising his own bar to every suburban mall in America. By becoming the CEO of such a vast enterprise, Brian would ascend at last into the ranks of the big bourgeoisie – the ultra-rich, those who fundamentally control the wealth of society. But that dream is belied by his mundane existence as a member of the proletariat, selling his labour-power to an employer for a paltry wage.
Rejected by Wall Street, Brian finds work at Doug Coughlin’s bar. Although a horrible bartender at first, Brian learns quickly from Doug a myriad of impressive bartending tricks (“flairing”) which they use to entertain customers. Soon the pair are a hit, attracting rave notices from bar patrons evidently unperturbed by having to wait an extra five minutes for drinks while Brian and Doug execute their flashy moves. A successful-looking businessman invites the pair to perform at his own club, where the “World’s First Yuppie Poet” delivers his poem entitled The Bottom Line:
Money isn’t everything, they say.
Okay, so what is? Sex? Did you ever make love to a plumber? Pee-yoo!
Revolution? It takes money to overthrow the government, you know.
Art? The more it costs, the better it is.
And that’s the bottom line!
The moral of the yuppie poem: money is everything.
At this point in the film, Brian seems to be following the outline of the archetypal American success story: starting from difficult origins, he works hard and develops his talent to become one of the best bartenders in the city, becoming a minor celebrity. But following plot machinations revolving around Brian and Doug’s quarrel over the aforementioned groupie, the pair come to blows and Brian storms out.
The difficulties in Brian’s efforts to realize his dream up to this point provide some sense of conflict and drama, making the film more relatable to those audience members not currently living out their own dreams. Brian leaves for Jamaica, glorified as a no-tax capitalist paradise where he can earn enough money to one day finance his own establishment.
Working at a bar in Jamaica, Brian meets his eventual love interest Jordan Mooney (Elizabeth Shue). Taking a seat at the bar, she turns down Brian’s offer of a fancy mixed drink and requests a beer; “my kind of woman,” he responds. Given the popular view of beer as a working class drink, Jordan thereby establishes herself as a down-to-earth working girl, someone who shares Brian’s own economic struggles. That perception is later reinforced when Jordan paints Brian’s portrait on the beach. Asking her if it pays the bills, she replies that “it will someday,”, explaining that she currently works as a waitress in New York.
Doug eventually shows up at the bar where Brian is working and announces that he has married a rich woman named Kerry (Kelly Lynch), engendering a new plot twist. Angered by Doug teasing him as a “career proletarian”, Brian implies that Doug only found a rich woman through luck. Doug, declaring it a matter of not luck but skill, bets Brian that he cannot successfully woo a rich older woman named Bonnie (Lisa Banes).
To summarize the next few plot developments: Brian beds Bonnie; Jordan finds out and flies back to New York, devastated after spending several romantic days with Brian; Brian flies back to New York with Bonnie in the expectation that he will be placed high in the company she owns due to their romantic attachment.
Unfortunately, the payoff is too slow. Almost immediately there is a culture clash between the working class Brian and the spoiled upper-class Bonnie. Upon waking up to Bonnie doing aerobics, Brian’s would-be sugar mama asks him to fetch her some carrot juice. When they attend an art exhibition, a drunk Brian gets in a fight with the sculptor who is depicted as an insufferable snob (“haven’t got this one housebroken yet?” he sneers). Finally, Brian and Bonnie part; as he confides to her, “I tried to sell out to you, but I couldn’t close the deal.”
Again, we see the film’s contradictory relationship to wealth. At the same time as Brian aspires to great riches and both he and Doug see sleeping with moneyed women as a shortcut, the wealthy are presented as alien to ordinary “working Joes” like Brian – they are snobby elitists. This is the same inescapable contradiction of Reaganism, which has dominated conservative thought in North America to this day: glorifying wealth on one hand as the fulfillment and embodiment of the American dream, and on the other harnessing the resentment of poor and working class Americans against upper-class elites when it is politically advantageous. Under a capitalist mode of production, this contradiction can never truly be resolved.
Brian seeks out Jordan at the restaurant where she waits tables. As they are talking, an impatient couple loudly complains: “Miss, we have theatre tickets!” We are meant to empathize with the working class Jordan and Brian, and to resent these clueless bourgeois types.
But then comes a new plot twist: when Jordan runs off to stay with her parents in their Park Avenue apartment, it becomes clear that even as she maintained a working class facade, in actual fact Jordan was from an extraordinarily wealthy family the whole time.
Aside from cheapening the earlier presentation of Jordan as a struggling waitress – since it is merely her personal choice rather than a necessity and she can always fall back on her parents – this revelation allows the film to make a detour into clichéd cinematic territory, to wit: the rich girl’s parents disapprove of her relationship with the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
It should be noted that when Jordan announces to Brian that she is pregnant and wants him out of her life, abortion is never even considered – another mark of the conservative mentality that dominates this film. It also adds a family-values element to Brian’s determination to win her back: “our kid needs a father,” he tells her.
Jordan’s father (Lawrence Luckinbill) angrily offers Brian money to stay away from her, and when he refuses, adds some upper class condescension to further express his disapproval:
Brian: $10,000? Is that all your daughter’s worth?
Mr. Mooney: Okay. How much will it take?
Brian: I don’t want your goddamn money. You can’t buy me out of Jordan’s life.
Mr. Mooney: You think I’m letting some bartender walk into my family and destroy my daughter’s life?
When Jordan enters the room, he confronts her:
Brian: Were you so honest? Why didn’t you tell me you were the original rich chick?
Jordan: Because you’re so hung up on money, I was afraid I’d never know how you really felt about me. Me.
Brian [ripping up cheque]: This is how hung up on money I am.
The scene is meant to represent a significant turning point in Brian’s character arc, as he realizes that money and wealth are not the most important things in the world, and that love is truly all you need. But as we shall see in the ending, this proves to be an extremely hollow sentiment that the film itself does not live up to.
Meanwhile, Doug’s world has been slowly unravelling. While we saw from her first scene that Doug’s rich wife Kerry blatantly flirts with other men in his presence, by the climax of the film things have gone from bad to worse. Having lost a bet that he would not be working for Doug by St. Patrick’s Day, Brian brings him a bottle of highly expensive Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac / Baccarat Crystal. (Where Brian got the money for such an expensive gift remains a mystery, but mysterious sources of income prove a recurring problem in the film’s climax.) As they sit in Kerry’s yacht to share the bottle, Doug confides to Brian that he has gambled away almost all of his wife’s money on the commodities market.
With Doug too drunk to drive, Brian escorts Kerry home, at which point she kisses him. When he backs away, she asks how she can sleep with only one person for the rest of her life (“it’s called marriage” he responds, echoing the family values theme). Returning to the yacht, Brian is devastated to see that Doug has committed suicide using shards of the broken cognac bottle.
The context and method of Doug’s suicide seem to provide a vivid metaphor indicating that his single-minded obsession with wealth killed him in the end. Certainly, without Doug’s financially-motivated marriage to Kerry, he never would have been in a position either to gamble away enough money on the commodities market to want to kill himself or to offer Brian a job, which was the basis for the bet in the first place. Doug’s suicide drives Brian back to Jordan.
Soon after, we see Brian and Jordan enjoying their wedding reception at Uncle Pat’s pub in a raucous working class celebration. Jordan, we have seen, has closed off any assistance from her wealthy family. Brian has lost the immediate possibility of a high-earning job. Nevertheless, the two are getting married and starting a family. Brian is no closer to his capitalist dream than when the film began, but he is happy. He has matured and is ready to become a father. Most significantly, he has realized that love is more important to him than money could ever be. It is a poignant reminder that while we may not achieve our dreams of wealth and fame, we can still find happiness with the ones we love.
The film then proceeds to take that message and blow it to kingdom come.
Suddenly we cut to the flashing neon exterior of a bar. It is “Flanagan’s Cocktails and Dreams.” Inside is Brian, pouring drinks and reciting a poem to the patrons about his lovely wife and their unborn child. Brian has done it after all! He did manage to start his own bar and attain his dream. If not yet the bourgeois head of a nationwide bar franchise, he is nevertheless a successful petit-bourgeois small business owner who could very well be on his way to vast riches some day.
The only problem? There is little to no explanation of how Brian scraped together the money to start his own bar smack-dab in the middle of the world’s most expensive real estate market.
In his review of Cocktail, Roger Ebert pondered the question:
How did he finance it? There’s a throwaway line about how he got some money from his uncle, a subsistence-level bartender who can’t even afford a late-model car. Sure. It costs a fortune to open a slick singles bar in Manhattan, and so we are left with the assumption that Cruise’s rich father-in-law came through with the financing. If the movie didn’t want to leave that impression, it shouldn’t have ended with the scene in the bar. But then this is the kind of movie that uses Cruise’s materialism as a target all through the story and then rewards him for it at the end. The more you think about what really happens in Cocktail, the more you realize how empty and fabricated it really is.
Ultimately, the film is guilty of the same kind of magical thinking that animates the modern conservative movement. Just as advocates of supply-side economics maintain that it is somehow possible to cut taxes and dramatically increase military spending while balancing the budget, Cocktail holds that a down-on-his-luck bartender, whose wife is pregnant with twins but who has “saved money” and worked out a loan with his (by no means rich) uncle, can end up running his own classy singles bar in downtown Manhattan.
Drenched in the imagery and discourse of Reaganism, Cocktail’s presentation of the hero’s transition from hardscrabble worker to successful business owner is ultimately as false and meaningless as the American Dream itself in capitalist society. Given the much more adverse economic conditions of 2012, and the large-scale immunity of political and financial elites from criminal prosecution, the old cliché that anyone can become rich and successful in America if they work hard and play by the rules today rings more hollow than ever.
Had it not been for the ending, Cocktail might have remained a satisfactory parable, à la It’s a Wonderful Life, of failing to achieve your dreams but finding happiness nonetheless. In the final product, however, Brian achieves his dream almost as an afterthought barely tethered to the plot developments that preceded it. More than any other aspect of the film, that unearned and unrealistic ending illustrates the superficiality of the film itself, the decade from which it came, and conservative politics in general. It also gives further credence to George Carlin’s immortal observation: “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Matt Gardner is Equity Coordinator for the Toronto Young New Democrats and a supporter of the Marxist newspaper Fightback.