Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stubs – The Coca-Cola Kid

THE COCA-COLA KID (1985) Starring: Eric Roberts, Greta Scacchi, Bill Kerr Directed by Dušan Makavejev. Screenplay by Frank Moorhouse. Produced by Les Lithgow, Sylvie Le Ciezio, and David Roe. Run Time: 98. Color. Australia. Romantic Comedy.

Oddly uninvolving, The Coca-Cola Kid tells the story of an American Coca-Cola Executive, Becker (Eric Roberts) who visits the company’s Sidney based subsidiary. Why he came and what he was trying to accomplish is never really clear, though he does fixate on sales in one area in Australia, Anderson Valley, that are non-existent. Terri (Greta Scacchi) is assigned to be Becker’s secretary while he’s in the country and she comes with baggage, namely a very cute daughter, DMZ (Rebecca Smart) and an anarchist ex-husband, Kim (Chris Haywood), who gets into a fight with Terri at the office.

In a rather odd subplot, a waiter at Becker’s hotel (David Slingsby) thinks Becker is with the CIA. And makes overtones that he’s in with whatever plot they have going. Becker tries to dissuade him, but to no avail, finally going ahead and telling the waiter that he can arrange for weapons for $50,000, just to get the guy to leave him alone.

When Becker goes to the Valley to spy on the competition, T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), he gets shot at by T. George and then kicked out his hotel, which T. George apparently owns, as well as everything else in the Valley. Becker sleeps on, of all places, a cliff and wakes up the next morning, when a camel riding emissary comes to chase him home. But Becker, a former U.S. Marine, is able to overpower him and drives him back to T. George’s.

Suddenly, McDowell is welcoming and shows Becker around the plant, where he makes several varieties of fruit-based soft drinks. He hasn’t changed things much in the 40 years he’s been running the plant, but in some ways, he doesn’t need to. He can keep up with demand and everyone seems to like working for him and drinking his soda. He even listens to Becker’s rhetoric about selling Coca-Cola in T. George’s valley.

A few days later, T. George comes to Sydney. When Terri sees him arrive, she takes to hiding in an ice chest to avoid him. T. George has come to offer a compromise. He’ll sell Coca-Cola in his valley, if they’ll market his soda, which he now calls McCoke, outside. It is a bit of a stretch and he knows it. And while the other people in the office seem to snicker at him, Becker takes him seriously. After pulling an icy Terri out of the cooler, Becker fires her.

Meanwhile, and having nothing else to do with the story, Becker arranges for a new coke jingle with an Australian sound (read: a didgeridoo). The jingle, written by one of the musicians (Tim Finn of Split Enz fame), is very catchy. Lurking about the studio is Terri, who convinces Philip to bring Becker to a party she’s throwing that night.

Once there, she makes a point of embarrassing him by having a transvestite, Marjorie (Ian Gilmour) hit on him and having another friend take photos. Then Becker has food thrown at him. Feeling embarrassed and acting a little effeminate for a Marine, he goes into DMZ’s room and cries, until Kim comes around and starts trouble again. Instead of hustling Kim out, they both end up in the rain, seeking shelter under an overhang and getting to know each other over a few Foster’s.

When Becker goes back to Anderson Valley, he takes with him an armada of Coke delivery trucks, driven by Santa Clauses, as a goodwill gesture, but T. George hates it and has his crew throw the Santas and their trucks out. But he does invite Becker to a Rotary meeting that night and at the meeting invites Becker to meet at midnight at the factory. While T. George and crew plant dynamite about the floor, Becker goes back to his hotel room. Waiting for him, in her Santa outfit, is Terri. And after some back and forth, Becker finally gives into her sexual advances.

But that means Becker misses his meeting with T. George, who shows up the next morning at the hotel while Terri is still there. That’s when we find out that Terri is T. George’s daughter who has run away from Anderson Valley and her father. When the Cola people leave town, T. George blows up his plant and lets it burn to the ground, even going so far as to keep police and fire personnel away. It is not clear if he dies in the flames or not.

Back at his hotel, the waiter gives Becker a partial payment and Becker is able to get authorities to arrest him, but still keep the money. When Becker learns of the explosion at McDowell’s, he quits Coca-Cola and takes the money to Terri and DMZ.

The movie is uneven throughout. The storyline is somewhat confusing at best. Things are never explained, such as why T. George would destroy his own plant. We learn that Terri isn’t interested in the family business, but that’s after he’s already planted the dynamite. We don’t know why Becker is sent to Australia. Sure they’re not doing things the American way, but they are still a successful subsidiary. His change in management approach seems a little over the top.

There are also problems with characters. Becker seems to be whatever he needs to be at that moment in the film. He’s a tough-talking former Marine, espousing that Coca-Cola is somehow in the business of spreading American ideals throughout the world, but he can also cry when embarrassed. He can be unforgiving, firing Terri for being flighty, but can also be very diplomatic when dealing with T. George and tender when he first meets DMZ. (It is in that scene that he tells her to call him the Coca-Cola Kid). And Robert’s accent drifts from southern to sounding like Matthew McConaughey, which is a sort of Texas accent.

Terri is cute, voluptuous, but otherwise insane. Her behavior is odd no matter the situation. When her husband Kim comes in and demands alimony from her at work, she seems to defend him to Becker. When Becker fires her, she still hangs around work, attending the jingle recording session and volunteering to dress like Santa and drive one of the delivery trucks to Anderson Valley. How would she get such access if she was a former employee? And while she seems to be attracted to Becker, how does having photos taken of him with Marjorie help bring them together?

And while Terri and Becker do get together, it seems more that the script told them to, rather than the story lead to it. Becker is not a bad looking guy and he’s in great shape, as we see in many scenes of Roberts sans shirt, but he is also self-absorbed, cold and mean to Terri. He is what is referred to as the Ugly American, so why the pretty Australian girl would want him is never explained. But Robert’s the male lead and Scacchi’s the female lead, so they have to get together if this is to be a romantic comedy. Becker, who has been aggressively asexual throughout the film, not being attracted to Terri or to Marjorie, ends up having sex with Terri and tries to build a relationship with her at the end.

Now you might be thinking Australians have forgotten about characters and movie story-telling, you have to remember that the director is Dušan Makavejev, a Serbian filmmaker, best known for his contributions to Yugoslavian cinema in the 60’s and 70’s. He is not mainstream by a country mile. Makavejev is best remembered for two films, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974). W.R. deals with the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, while one of the plotlines in Sweet Movie involves a woman piloting a candy-filled boat down a river, seducing men and children. And after she has sex with them, she kills them. By comparison to his other films, The Coca-Cola Kid is accessible.

While I’m not a big believer in trying to read into a film a message that the filmmaker didn’t intend, Makavejev is not very subtle in using Coca-Cola as a stand-in for what I’m sure he saw as U.S. imperialism, as if the nation is trying to remake everyone in the world in our likeness, with the thirst for carbonated beverages leading the way. Becker preaches Americanism with a religious fervor to the point of embarrassment. The only way to avoid America’s influence, apparently, is to destroy yourself before they take you over, grind you up and spit you out. [It should be noted that there are several disclaimers at the beginning of the film, at least on the DVD, in which Coca-Cola distances itself from any involvement with the film.]

There are two things that make The Coca-Cola Kid almost worthwhile. First, for men, is a shower scene featuring Terri and DMZ. While the nudity is obviously gratuitous, there is nothing wrong with seeing a 25-year-old Scacchi in the all-together. She later appears semi-nude in her bedroom scene with Becker, but the shower scene is the most memorable one in the film.

The other thing is the coke jingle. While it was that Australian sound, it is also very catchy. Why this was not nominated for an Academy Award for best original song is beyond me. (“Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Ritchie from White Nights won the award that year if anybody’s interested.) Tim Finn, at the time Scacchi’s boyfriend, also had a bit part in the film, but scores one of the more memorable moments in the film. Once you hear the song, it is hard to forget. If you don't want to have to watch the film to hear the jingle you can click here.

Overall, though, I would not recommend The Coca-Cola Kid. While a movie can still be well made and drive home a political thought, it doesn’t appear that Makavejev can do both. And there are not enough Scacchi shower scenes that can make up for the fact The Coca-Cola Kid is flat.

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