“Cocktail,” 30 years later

Tom Cruise, 2017. Photo: Eva Rinaldi, via flickr

A movie that brings back Manhattan in all its decadent 1980s glory

by Jon Friedman

“Cocktail,” the 1988 Tom Cruise movie, shows Manhattan in a bygone era: all of its decadent 1980s glory.

Don’t be coy. You remember that era, when a whole new vocabulary and way of life came into prominence. Crack was the cheap drug of choice of high school kids who mugged older people (like me, on Friday night, June 13, 1986) to pay for the shabby high. The perp walk was born on Wall Street when the feds outsmarted greedy bankers and brokers. The baby-boomers, disparaged by the media as Yuppies, slinked off to Brooklyn if they couldn’t afford to live in The City.

The movie “Cocktail” — no rational person would dignify such a critically reviled flick by calling it a “film” — shows a bygone time in the city’s pop-culture history. Someday, anthropologists will gleefully dissect “Cocktail” to learn the rhythms of the Upper East Side. Perhaps no other movie has revealed the meat-market aspect of life in those shameless pick-up bars. If you’re nodding in chagrined recognition, it’s OK! Hey, I was there, too, and, you bet, I am also cringing at the stories of the pulsating disco music and the wasted, aspiring hipsters doing blow in the bathrooms.

Cruise plays Brian Flanagan, a young military veteran who comes home to Queens to stake his claim to the American Dream. Capturing the spirit of the go-go, insider-trading-rich 1980s culture in the city, he finds that schoolroom classes are too slow and stultifying for him. Desperate to make a few bucks but lacking the requisite training for most coveted jobs, he stumbles into a job in an Upper East Side singles bar and quickly learns the ropes from the resident, all-knowing bartender, Doug Coughlin, played smartly by Bryan Brown. “Young Flanagan,” as Coughlin calls him affectionately and dismissively, quickly becomes a rock-star barkeep. Men idolize him for his breezy cool style and women want to sleep with him.

Few movies have featured the city as such a notable supporting character. Sure, we’ve had “Moonstruck” to represent romantic Italian Brooklyn, and “Bright Lights, Big City” for the youthful, cocaine-filled literary set, “Wall Street” for the naked greed of Wall Streeters, “Manhattan” for, well, Manhattan and, God knows, “Taxi Driver” for the underside of one man’s descent into madness. There are, of course, dozens of others.

“Cocktail” is perfect for fans of the 1980s Cruise. He plays Brian to the hilt of that era of patented Cruise characters who scream cockiness and still manage to betray a little vulnerability. Think of a bartender version of “Risky Business,” “Top Gun,” “The Color of Money” and, a later, “Rainman,“ “A Few Good Men” and “Jerry Maguire.”

And what about the city itself? What has become of those singles bars? I suspect that things just aren’t quite the same today as they were 30 years ago. This conclusion came to me a few months ago. I was sitting on a bench at the West 23rd Street IRT subway station early one morning when I overheard two taxi drivers lamenting the new pressures on their way of life.

Like any know-it-all journalist, I interrupted them and sagely nodded about the effect of Uber and Lyft on them and their brethren. One of them shot back: “No, no, sir. That’s not exactly it. People don’t go out to the bars, to pick people up, as much as they used to.”

The other man nodded vigorously and added: “They stay home now and use online dating services, instead of going to singles bars.”

That’s what it has come to. Is it better or worse to live in New York today than thirty years ago? Is the city now tamer or more sensible?

Who can say ... But it sure is different now.