Have a Coca-Cola Kid and a Smile

THE COCA COLA KID, Eric Roberts, 1985, (c) Cinecom International/courtesy Everett Collection

To view The Coca-Cola Kid click here.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching all of those movie review shows where two critics faced off and compared notes about the latest releases, from the biggest blockbusters to the tiniest indie art house offerings. Siskel and Ebert were the gold standard here, of course, but there were plenty of others to get a broader range of opinions… and if a movie got called out as a “stinker” or “dog” of the week, I made sure to put it on my must-see list to find out what made them so angry. In the process I heard about lots of films I’d never have any hope of seeing on the big screen – things like Liquid Sky (1982), Pauline at the Beach (1983) or My American Cousin (1985), which weren’t exactly the kind of thing an underage kid could easily go see.

Then there was something called The Coca-Cola Kid(1985), which looked really odd and fascinating based on the few clips that showed up on TV; every reviewer seemed to tag it with words like “sexy” and “zany,” a kind of racier Aussie cousin to something like The Gods Must Be Crazy (which was shot in 1980 but didn’t hit the U.S. until 1984) or Local Hero (1983). So I added The Coca-Cola Kid to my future watchlist and went on my usual movie-devouring way. Meanwhile VHS was really exploding, and it was much, much easier to rent foreign films down the street (plus they didn’t usually have MPAA ratings!)—a real boost for any young cinephile. It wasn’t long before some scouring exposed me to the films of Dušan Makavejev, the taboo-smashing Yugoslavian provocateur behind such groundbreaking films as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967). (And yep, you can see those and plenty more right here on FilmStruck as part of the “Directed by Dušan Makavejev” theme.)

It was somewhere around this point that I finally got around to seeing The Coca-Cola Kid, and my eyes popped out when I saw who directed it. Dušan Makavejev? The wild man filmmaker who didn’t seem to have any use for a linear plot whatsoever was behind this genial comedy with Eric Roberts and Greta Scacchi, both of whom were (incredibly enough) considered up-and-coming box office names at the time… and that just seemed too weird to process. However, upon watching the actual film, it all clicked right into place. Every shot in this thing is 100% Makavejev from start to finish: the bright colors, the layered projections, the weird narrative digressions (including a third-act detour that still stymies a lot of viewers) and most of all, that bemused attitude about the routines and restrictions we place on our lives for no good reason.

COCA-COLA KID, THE (1985)

This time out he sets his sights on American corporate aggression, with Coca-Cola (who distanced itself from the film but still allowed its release) sending drawling sales rep Becker (Roberts) into the one unconquered area of Australia where a local, T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), has the market cornered with his own local soda. Thrown into the mix is secretary Terri (Scacchi).

This was actually a dream project for the director since the mid-1970s when he was handed the original stories by Frank Moorhouse, The Americans, Baby, at the Cannes Film Festival while he was promoting Sweet Movie (1975), still his most notorious and extreme personal statement. Moorhouse ended up writing the screenplay himself, also pulling elements from The Electrical Experience, to create a bittersweet comic portrait of what happens when one behemoth corporation tries to insinuate itself in a foreign culture to “liberate” it. In the interim, Makavejev turned out one feature, the superb and wildly undervalued Montenegro (1981), which turned out to be enough of an art house success to earn a mention on The Coca-Cola Kid’s posters in several territories.

COCA-COLA KID, THE (1985)

At the time this came out it was something of a shock to hear the Mississippi-born and Atlanta-raised Roberts speaking with an exaggerated version of his natural accent, and even more so to see him sporting a head of ginger-blond hair in stark contrast to his brunette appearance in his earlier appearances in Raggedy Man (1981), Star 80 (1983) or The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), all of which helped put him on the map as a distinctive leading man to watch. It’s debatable whether his impassioned but very extreme performance in Runaway Train (1985), released the same year as this film, did more harm or good to his career, but in either case his leading man status was quickly terminated as he settled into character roles and low-budget indies that usually went straight to video. He’s still insanely busy (still averaging well over a dozen projects a year), but watching The Coca-Cola Kid reminds you what he could do with a truly meaty project in his hands.

In case you’re wondering how a huge, publicity-conscious company like Coca-Cola would allow its name to be used in this film’s title considering how it’s portrayed in the actual story, consider that this film bowed at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1985 and hit both the United States and United Kingdom two months later. Meanwhile The Coca-Cola Company had unveiled its much-touted updated version of its flagship soft drink (what is now known as New Coke), which sparked a massive, unexpected backlash from consumers that turned into one of the biggest public relations debacles of the era. However, in the long run it turned out to be a boon as they reintroduced Coca-Cola Classic (albeit now with high fructose corn syrup in its U.S. version replacing cane sugar, which is why so many people still love Mexican Coke), which was stamping all over the sales of New Coke and Pepsi by the end of 1985. Obviously they were a bit too distracted by all the ruckus to care much about a little Australian production from an oddball filmmaker that portrayed them in a somewhat pushy light… which proves once again that when it comes to getting away with something in a movie, timing is everything.

Nathaniel Thompson

5 Responses Have a Coca-Cola Kid and a Smile
Posted By EricJ : May 10, 2017 2:17 am

With Pepsi/Mountain Dew’s new interest in “Throwback” cane-sugar colas, Coca-Cola Life (in the green label) has now finally started appearing regularly on shelves, but only in glass-bottles.
It’s actually pretty good, even if not Diet. (Or Coke Zero…Oh, you DO know that New Coke eventually became the flavor for Diet Coke, don’t you, hence the difference?)

As for the movie, I was about to mention the movie’s resemblance to an Australian “Local Hero”–in that an American businessman gets a taste of quirky local cultural life–except that Makavejev is a lot less kind to the symbolic image of Eric Roberts as American Businessman than Bill Forsyth was to Peter Reigert.
Still, have to love:
“I want to hear the SOUND of Australia:”
(puzzled pause)
“‘Baaa…baaa…’”

Posted By M McElwrath : May 10, 2017 10:24 am

Had not thought about this little gem in decades but could still remember my favorite thing about it – it’s crazy, catchy jingle:
I don’t want to go where’s there’s no Coca-Cola!
You’ve got the world by the throat, when you’re drinkin’ a Coke!

Ok, I lied, the jingle was my second favorite thing. I was in my 20′s and that handsome Eric Roberts was the star. Oh, that 80′s hair. He still has it! Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

Posted By M McElwrath : May 10, 2017 10:28 am

Blast from the past! Had not thought about this little gem in years but I somehow remember its catchy jingle:

I don’t want to go where’s there’s no Coca-Cola!
You’ve got the world by the throat when you’re drinkin’ a Coke!

Okay, the jingle was my second favorite ting about the movie. I was in my 20′s and that handsome Eric Roberts was the star. All of that great 80′s hair! He still has it. Thanks for the memories. I’ll be singing that jingle for weeks.

Posted By Caperton Miller : May 10, 2017 1:20 pm

I LOVED this film when it came out! Greta was so sexy & Roberts was great & up & coming. Plus a cameo from Art Pop Star Tim Finn. (Split Endz & Crowded House). I really thought it would be a huge indie hit. I was wrong but glad to see it getting another look.

Posted By Robert : May 14, 2017 3:55 pm

Speaking of MY AMERICAN COUSIN, where’s the Blu Ray of that? It did have a healthy theatrical engagement and great critical reception at the time, and here (British Columbia, where it was made) it played for quite a long time.

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