20 years after
by Sara Faith Alterman
| July 10, 2008
Local bartenders gather to celebrate — and ridicule — the Tom Cruise classic Cocktail two decades after its release
The seven of us giggle and scoff as Tom Cruise deftly flips a bottle into the air and catches it, pouring a perfect stream of liquid into a glass and smirking the playful smirk that made him so loveable in the 1980s, before the aliens usurped his brain.
“Why the hell is he working at a high-volume bar the first night he started?” shouts Manny Hernandez. “Good luck trying to do that in Boston.”
I’ve gathered with Hernandez, a bartender at La Verdad, and five of his peers in the basement lounge of the Good Life, where we’re watching everyone’s favorite martini-shaking re-enactment, Cocktail, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the film’s release (yes, you are that old). Along with Hernandez, there’s Jennifer Harvey of 33 Restaurant & Lounge, Frank Reardon of the Beehive, Chris Drescher of Bella Luna and the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, Kit Paschal of Eastern Standard, and Brenda Marry of Vox Populi. And yes, we’re drinking.
For those of you who don’t remember the film because a) you were too young when it came out; b) you were too drunk when it came out; or c) you’re too drunk right now, allow me to recap.
Cruise plays Brian Flanagan, a down-on-his-luck military man who just left the Army and is trying to land a marketing job in the big city. But without one of them fancy college degrees, what’s a wide-eyed heartthrob with a crooked grin to do? Why, take a job tending bar, of course! Brian’s boss teaches him how to be a bottle-flipping, lady-bonking superstar. Soon, Brian’s ambitions shift and he ditches his books and heads to Jamaica, where he hopes to earn enough cold, hard cash to open his own bar, called ... wait for it ... Cocktails & Dreams. In Jamaica, Brian churns coladas at a tiki bar and meets the smokin’ hot Jordan Mooney, played by the celestial, post Adventures in Babysitting Elisabeth Shue. Romance, then drama, then heartfelt resolution ensue.
Most of us at the Good Life saw the film when it came out in 1988, either in the theater or by sneaking illicit peeks while our older siblings watched it on VHS at their slumber parties. As unbearably corny as all of the movie’s one-liners, knowing winks, and all-night daiquiri fests seem today, there is some truth to the film, or at least a shred of foundational accuracy that all of my cocktail-slinging viewing companions can understand.
One by one, the bartenders take a seat and I grab them each a drink. After all, these guys wait on people for a living — they deserve to surrender to my (rusty) waitressing skills. Seven years of service, only a handful of broken dishes: I can handle a few beers. I’ve come with snacks like neon-orange cheese dip and a mountain of Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins, hoping the booze and the sugar high will stimulate conversation. No need. A few minutes after we pop in the DVD, the conversation flows like cheap beer on a Saturday night in Davis Square.
Onscreen a montage of scenes showing Cruise’s Brian Flanagan trying to find an office job flies by; again and again, he’s rejected because he lacks a college degree. I ask my panel of experts if any of them, like Flanagan, turned to bartending as a last-resort money-maker and wound up sticking with it. Drescher raises his glass to that. “I have a degree in acting,” he says. “I was in New York, but the acting jobs were few and far between, so I became a bartender.” Harvey says she never looked back after moving behind the bar at a restaurant where she was already working. Same with Paschal. Hernandez giggles that he was working as a bar back to pay his way
through college. His first night on the job, he got a number from a hot chick, which sold him on bartending for life.
So being a bartender makes you sex-tastic in your patrons’ eyes? “I think a lot more hookups happen behind the bar than over the bar,” says Reardon, who, indeed, met his wife when they were working together at a bar (she was his boss).
“When you’re stuck behind the bar with someone, you can become so close so fast,” Marry adds. “Plus, if a customer talks to me and we exchange numbers, then he needs to leave. If he sticks around and gets annihilated, that number is going in the trash.”
So getting some ass is clearly a perk. How about the money? “The money is dangerous,” Reardon says. “Because it’s cash. If you want to go out one night and just drop $300 on a bottle of wine, you look at it as, that’s tomorrow night’s shift.”
Everyone agrees. As I listen to them talk about the fistfuls of cash they plunk on their dressers in the wee morning hours after a shift, I start to re-think my career. I also learn, from a 10-minute diatribe about cash versus credit, that those of use who use plastic for all purchases big and small are assholes. Lesson one: next time I just want a beer, hit the ATM first.
We get a little sidetracked babbling about benjamins and, before we know it, the movie has progressed to one of the now-infamous bottle-flipping scenes. You know them: Cruise juggling bottles like a manic court jester, mixing drinks and breaking hearts. I remember being so impressed with his acrobatics the first time I watched Cocktail. I ask my new friends if any of them ever feel compelled to toss a bottle or two, just to get the crowd going.
A resounding “NO!” echoes in unison.
“Rookie bartenders do that!” says Marry. “It’s like they have a point to prove. A good bartender needs to move fast!”
“Oh my god,” Drescher agrees. “If you drop a bottle and the glass breaks in your ice, that’s the worst possible disaster that can happen to you.”
“If you try that at the Beehive, you’re in trouble,” Reardon adds.
In case you flair-bartender wannabes aren’t convinced, perhaps a threat of imminent death from Hernandez will convince you to keep the bottles on the bar.
“I was at a bar one night in Cambridge, and the bartender kept flipping beer bottles,” he says. “It took him forever to make any drinks, because he was showing off. I wanted to kill him. I killed him with my eyes.”
Lesson two: your bartender is not a circus monkey.
There’s so much mockingly heated conversation going on about bottle theatrics that we pretty much forget to watch the movie. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Flanagan drinking with customers, keeping late hours at the bar and then struggling to keep his eyes open during his daytime university lectures. Time passes, Flanagan gives up school, moves down to the tropics, blends girlie frozen drinks in the thatched-roof shade of a beach bar. He meets and romances everyone’s favorite babysitter, then completely fucks it up by bagging an older woman.
But what I find most scandalous (as much an ’80s film can be scandalous) is that, throughout all of this, the tricks and hookups and late nights spouting bar poetry (yeah, there’s that), Flanagan drinks with his customers while he’s on the job. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t drinking while you’re working, like, bad?
“People request it all the time, and whether or not you do it depends on policy,” Harvey says. “We will have a drink with customers, with discretion. If it’s someone I know will be responsible about it, then it’s okay.”
“As the bartender, as soon as you step behind the bar, it’s like you’re hosting the party,” Paschal notes.
So does the host get a drink now and again? “You might do it in camaraderie, to go over the top for a guest, so they can feel like they weren’t making you work,” Paschal says. “But I tend to steer away from it. It’s not a power issue; it’s just weird. But I do love when someone orders a sick bottle of wine and doesn’t finish it, then tells
me to try it. For them to offer up an opportunity like that is the best thing.”
“I manage a bartender who once took an order for a bottle of Cristal, and they offered her a glass,” Harvey says. “I told her, ‘Hell, yeah.’ ”
Through the wonders of movie magic, Flanagan and Mooney reconcile as the movie crawls to an end, and Flanagan spouts a painfully embarrassing poem (in a botched Irish accent, no less) from atop a bar, in front of a smiling crowd. Apparently, he and Mooney got married. Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. I was more interested in what my six new friends had to say. Plus, by this point, the only cocktail I was interested in was the vodka and soda in my hand. I managed to slur one more question: now that you’re watching this movie again, from a bartender’s point of view, how is it a different experience?
“It makes me laugh at all of the drink names from the ’80s,” Harvey says, “and that there are only two bartenders at each of the crazy full bars.”
“Some of the movie is surprisingly realistic,” says Drescher, “with regard to a life where one tries to do something else, but ends up behind the bar.”
But it’s Paschal who puts it best. “The movie is a little more glamorous than the actual job,” he says.
Isn’t it always, though? Especially when Tom Cruise is involved. After all, this is the man who can make everything — even brainwashing America’s sweetheart into a vacuous, empty-eyed mannequin — seem cool.