CAPSULE: THE COCA-COLA KID (1985)

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DIRECTED BY: Dušan Makavejev

FEATURING: Eric Roberts, Greta Scacchi, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, Rebecca Smart

PLOT: A Coca-Cola executive travels to Australia to find out why the signature product has failed to penetrate one remote outpost in the country; Along the way, he crosses swords with an unexpectedly fierce competitor, adapts to down-under culture shock, and tries to cope with his distractingly quirky secretary.

Still from The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)

COMMENTS: Eric Roberts was young once. I mean, so were we all, but the lies we tell ourselves about the aging process are revealed more starkly in the cinema. So here he is: young, blond, rosy-cheeked, oozing alright-alright charm and boasting a Georgia accent you can spread on toast. So even though his mononymous character Becker is an ex-Marine who is called upon to be the face of all-consuming American capitalism, exploiting local culture and obliterating competitiveness for the benefit of a rapacious corporation, the thought that kept coming back to me was, “My goodness, who knew Eric Roberts was pretty?”

The gorgeousness of Eric Roberts is undoubtedly a strategy. If Satan is, as some contend, actually a ravishing beauty who lures the weak and unsuspecting, then the Coca-Cola Company is clearly cast here in the role of Satan, parlaying their sweet acidity, bold red branding scheme, and co-option of Santa Claus into world dominance. So it’s tempting at the outset to expect an Outback-themed take on Local Hero, in which our protagonist is confronted by an idyllic way of life that is literally foreign to his make-a-buck existence.

But The Coca-Cola Kid really isn’t into Becker, or even Coke, as avatars of our consumer culture. Far from embodying the worst traits of the faceless money monster, Becker is confused and aimless. He goes through the motions of using the latest marketing techniques to bring down his competitors, but his heart really isn’t in it. He barely seems to be into anything: he doesn’t particularly enjoy his own product any further than its saleable qualities, his approach to the alien landscape in which he has landed is purely functional, and his proto-manic pixie secretary Terri only manages to irritate him until she finally lures him into bed. (Even Becker’s sexuality is uncommitted; he seems equally baffled by Terri’s entreaties and by a series of aggressive same-sex come-ons at a party.) Aside from Terri’s grammar-school-aged daughter, the only person Becker seems to understand at all is his opponent.

Cue Becker’s foe: T. George McDowell, the biggest fish in a very small pond and a man with an oversized sense of his ability to compete with an industry juggernaut. He has steadfastly resisted Coke’s incursion into the region in favor of his own line of sodas, and it emerges that the whole enterprise is borne out of an “if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em” brand of revenge for the loss of his wife, a Mississippi-born Coke ad model whom he married and lost over his obsessions. (“She never understood the ice,” he reminisces.) Far from being a wide-eyed innocent from the sticks, McDowell fancies himself a global tycoon and Coke’s equal. It leads to an inevitable showdown between a man who thinks he has all the power and a man who knows he does.

The result is ultimately tragic. McDowell is utterly out of his league. There’s no competing with a behemoth, and the contrast is best dramatized in their marketing strategies. A trio of homely cheerleaders can’t hold a candle to pop of half-a-dozen Coke-bearing Santas, and McDowell’s homespun musical ditty is blown out of the room by the absolute banger of a jingle that Tim Finn has concocted.

But all the while, there’s this strange effort to graft a love story onto the film, and while everyone is slowly being crushed by capitalism’s iron boot, it’s in the romance where Dušan Makavejev seems to be trying the hardest to be Dušan Makavejev. The mix of rapacious capitalism and cheeky eroticism feels a little like he was trying to make a more audience-friendly version of his own Sweet Movie. (A genuinely well-crafted sex scene on a feather bed is a first cousin to the earlier film’s romp in sugar.) But he doesn’t seem any more focused than his characters. It’s a mark of how clueless Becker is that the stunningly sexy Greta Scacchi has to work so hard to get his attention, but it’s also curious how haphazard and clumsy Terri’s advances are. She holds a deep (and plotty) secret, but its revelation ultimately doesn’t have much impact on the choices characters must make. It’s just sort of there.

The Coca-Cola Kid has a very Australian soul, exuding a powerful “don’t worry, mate” vibe. Perhaps that’s the weirdest thing about it: in the face of themes like conquering capitalism, cultural homogeneity, and the overwhelming nature of love, the approach it settles on is, “Relax and go with it.” Maybe it’s a sensible approach, but it robs the film of immediacy and power. It just doesn’t feel like the real thing.

Fun City Editions released The Coca-Cola Kid to Blu-ray for the first time in June 2022.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly made as a more commercial effort and with a recognizable ‘name actor’ in the lead role, it lacks a lot of the weirdness that made some of his earlier work as compelling as it is, yet still remains a really entertaining and clever picture that’s worth checking out. Makavejev’s tendencies to point out the absurd and to work strange, offbeat humor into his work still shines through…” Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

Where to watch The Coca-Cola Kid

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