'Cocktail' Is Tom Cruise's Poorest-Reviewed Movie. The Guy Who Wrote It Might Get Redemption.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

Tom Cruise’s first and greatest hot streak as an actor lasted from 1986 to 1990, starting with Top Gun, followed by The Color of Money, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, which got him his first Best Actor nomination, and Days of Thunder. But smack in the middle of that run was one major stinker: Cocktail.

The bartender drama, which came out in 1988, has a 5 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it Cruise’s lowest-rated movie on the site. “The more you think about what really happens in Cocktail,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “the more you realize how empty and fabricated it really is.” For the role of Brian Flanagan, Cruise got a Worst Actor Razzie. The movie earned a stunning $171.5 million worldwide, but joined the canon of Minor Cruise films.

In the 30 years since its theatrical release, Cocktail has not earned a reappraisal from critics. No one is saying: Actually, it was ahead of it's time. But it also hasn't faded away. Over the years, the movie has maintained a loyal audience, including in Hollywood. Some of which you might even call admirers of the film. The producer of one of this year’s buzzy award-nominated films told me members of his social circle spent the weekend Cocktail hit Netflix last spring watching the movie and exchanging messages about it. Matthew Rhys, the star of The Americans, also told me, possibly half-joking, that Cocktail is an all-time favourite.

In case you haven’t seen Cocktail, or haven’t seen it in a while, you should know it’s kind of insane. It takes place in three acts, across New York and Jamaica. Cruise’s character is a working-class guy from Queens, who’s striving to become an '80s era yuppie, yet he settles for a relatively quiet life owning a small bar and raising a family-an enormous shift his character makes in a few minutes. There’s a suicide. There’s a waterfall sex scene. There’s a very angry father who appears in a third act that wraps up way too quickly.

Photo credit: Mondadori Portfolio - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mondadori Portfolio - Getty Images

But I love the movie. Tom Cruise remains the most exuberant actor on the screen, and in Cocktail he’s at his second-most exuberant, behind only Jerry Maguire. (In fact, there’s some Brian Flanagan in Jerry.) Plus, Bryan Brown, who plays Cruise's mentor in the film, is so good they could've just made the movie about him. Elisabeth Shue, no surprise, is an absolute breath of fresh air.

And so last summer, I emailed Heywood Gould, who wrote both the movie and the novel upon which it’s based, asking to chat. He responded promptly, and one afternoon I spent an hour talking to the guy who wrote Cocktail about the movie’s plot, his reaction to its sour reception in 1988, Tom Cruise, and where the characters might be today. During our conversation, Gould dropped a bombshell: The 76-year-old is working on a sequel.

“I have a long treatment,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Here’s the plot of Cocktail: Tom Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, returns home to New York from the military in search of an executive-level job. This was a common trope in the ‘80s: If you’re a white guy, you don’t necessarily need a college degree or even experience to land a cushy corporate job. But in Flanagan’s case, no one is biting, so he ends up at a TGI Friday’s, where Doug Coughlin, played by Bryan Brown, gives him a job despite having never tended bar.

Photo credit: Archive Photos - Getty Images
Photo credit: Archive Photos - Getty Images

Bartending, it turns out, suits Flanagan, and he quickly becomes locally famous for a routine with Coughlin that involves tossing bottles in the air. One thing leads to another and Flanagan lands in Jamaica, where he meets Elisabeth Shue’s Jordan Mooney, and, after breaking her heart, heads back to New York where Coughlin takes his own life. At the same time, Mooney, who’s pregnant with Flanagan’s baby, turns her back on her wealthy father to be with Flanagan. The movie ends with Flanagan opening his own saloon, and Mooney revealing she’s having twins.

Like I said, it’s kind of insane. But what’s most surprising is how shockingly unfocused the movie is for a Tom Cruise project. His movies are usually taut and to the point. This one lists in search of ballast and never decides if it wants to rebuke '80s greed or revel in it.

(One question that’s long dogged me about the plot is the timeline: over how long a period does this movie take place? Gould told me Flanagan spends between four and six months in Jamaica, which would mean the movie itself occurs over the span of about 18 months.)

Photo credit: Mondadori Portfolio - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mondadori Portfolio - Getty Images

The sequel, according to Gould, takes place 15 to 20 years after the events of the original film. Flanagan is a "star in the big club world,” Gould said. But he’s divorced and estranged from his twin daughters. “Now that he’s older, he’s trying to reform himself, rehabilitate his marriage and relationship with his daughters.”

To be clear: Gould hasn't pitched the sequel to anyone. The money people, as he calls them, haven’t signed on. “If anyone wants to see it they can,” he said.

I need to pause for a moment to tell you that Heywood Gould is like a boozy Forrest Gump of pre-Giuliani New York. In the '60s and '70s, he covered the crime beat for the New York Post, served in Vietnam, returned to New York and became a professional poker player, drove a cab, wrote books, articles, and TV and movie scripts-he co-wrote the 1977 movie Rolling Thunder with Paul Schrader-got himself into serious gambling debt and worked it off as a bartender at the Hotel Diplomat's nightclub in Times Square, all the while writing Cocktail (and other books). In 1984, he published Cocktail, which Universal bought. Then he adapted the novel into a screenplay that Disney acquired from Universal.

The book is semi-autobiographical, according to Gould, who said the two main characters are composites of people he'd met behind the bar. He is neither Flanagan nor Coughlin, although in conversation Gould occasionally sounds like Coughlin.

At last year’s Sydney Film Festival, Bryan Brown said in an interview that the original script for Cocktail was one of the “very best” he’d ever read. “Very dark ... about the cult of celebrity and everything about it,” he said. But when Cruise signed on for the film, Disney sought to lighten up the script.

“They gave me a bunch of notes about making Brian more likable,” Gould recalled. “There were fights along the way, big battles with Disney about how likable to make him.”

A sequel that casts a shadow on the main character, adding nuance and depth to Brian Flanagan, would certainly be redemption for Gould. And in the age of reboots, it might be just the thing for Hollywood. (I mean, a dark reimagining of the Cocktail story is definitely something I'd see-and no worse an idea than at least half the reboots of the last decade.) But Gould isn't looking to redeem himself.

At this point in his life, he doesn’t harbour any ill will towards Disney or, for that matter, Cruise, who’s never said a negative word about Cocktail. Gould said he hung around with Cruise during the filming of the movie. Cruise, he said, would have him over to his loft on 13th Street for dinner parties. They even paired up for two-on-two basketball at the Carmine Street gym and once held the court for an hour and a half, according to Gould. “He’s a really good ball player,” Gould said. “I had to quit and get a cigarette because I was dying.”

(Look, I get it: Cruise is 5’7” and Gould was apparently a heavy smoker, but I love this story and I choose to believe it.)

When the movie came out to bad reviews, Gould fell into a brief depression. “They hated it. They hated me. They hated everything,” he said. “I was pretty shook to tell you the truth.” Gould hung around the house for a couple days, until his wife came back from the grocery store with good news: She’d overheard two people saying the movie made them think. This snapped him out of it. (He’s told versions of this story in the past. Sometimes it’s his wife who overheard people discussing the film. Sometimes it’s him.)

But he earned good money from the movie, continued to write screenplays as well as direct. In the early '90s, he directed two movies he wrote, One Good Cop starring Michael Keaton and Trial by Jury starring Gabriel Byrne. After 19 years in L.A., Gould moved back to New York when, he said, "the money ran out." Today he continues to write and still collects checks thanks to Cocktail. Its appearance on Netflix also goosed his book sales. On the first night Cocktail appeared on Netflix, Gould said he sold 47 copies of his book. “I was stunned,” he said. “Netflix has been great for me.”

Gould told the Chicago Tribune in 2013 that he was not happy with the movie when it came out. So I asked him how he felt about it today, whether he had any regrets or would do anything differently. “It’s become an institution,” he said about the movie. “I get a lot of letters from people about it. I’m happy people like it. You don’t have to see great profundity in what I do; I’m just glad you like it.”

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