The opening titles for The Coca-Cola Kid make it clear that the film is in no way sponsored by Coca-Cola or the Coca-Cola bottling company. Obviously the company felt comfortable enough with the final product to let the film use their name, but it's hardly a glowing picture of the soft drink giant. In The Coca-Cola Kid, Coca-Cola is the face of American Imperialism. When company trouble shooter Becker (Eric Roberts) declares, "The world will not be truly free until Coke is available everywhere," he's speaking without irony. This film, then, is about Becker's attempts to help Coca-Cola colonize Australia, but what starts off as a film of comic promise and originality becomes bogged down in convention and cliché to the point that it's difficult by the final reel to remember what was so appealing at the beginning.
The Coca-Cola Kid fits nicely in the genre of American Corporate Fish Out Of Water tales. If you've seen the delightful Local Hero, for example, you'll know that no matter what kind of tough American goes off to the rural wasteland, he'll change, enlightened by the small town quirks and wisdom he was meant to subvert. That's not really giving anything away in this film, because the last act doesn't play out as you expect. In fact, it hardly plays out at all.
Becker arrives in Australia to help boost lagging sales. It turns out that there's a whole region of the country where no Coke is sold at all. Becker, a former marine with the proverbial "unorthodox way of doing business," discovers that that region is ruled over by T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr) a gruff man of homespun wisdom, but more importantly, homemade soft drinks, made from real fruit. Even though their first encounter is rough, Becker is determined to fight off the advances of his secretary-with-a-secret (Greta Scacchi) and the hotel waiter who mistakes him for an arms dealer to do the job he was sent to do.
Directed by Dusan Makavejev, The Coca-Cola Kid develops a wonderful momentum early on. In fact, the first hour of the film is an absolute gem. Eric Roberts's performance to that point is perfect. His presentation to the bemused Coke officials is comic gold, as he waxes poetic about the fizzy beverage, even holding it up to the light bathing the room in its brown glow. Roberts's early scenes with Scacchi have a nice screwball touch and his interactions with Scacchi's moppet daughter provide a nice depth for the character, hinting at something beyond his intensity. There's a nifty sequence where Becker enlists a studio band to try to come up with the "sound of Australia" where they go through several absurd suggestions before coming up with a truly catchy jingle.
I'm not sure how far it is into the movie, but for me things begin to go south immediately after that recording session. For reasons completely unclear to me, the secretary has Becker invited to a party to catch him in an awkward position. This involves completely random intimations of homosexuality and ends of feeling both forced and pointless. The scene is so clumsy that it leaves a bad taste that begins to spread.
It rapidly becomes clear that The Coca-Cola Kid isn't going to omit a single convention of Australian culture. You want an old bushman with a diggerydoo (inevitably misspelled, but my dictionary is letting me down)? You've got it. An adorable wounded Kangaroo? Bingo! And a slightly inbred man singing a rousing chorus of "Walzing Matilda?" Yup-Yup. In fact, the vision of Australia put forth by the film is so cookie-cutter that it's hard to feel bad about the culture being overrun by American interests. You support Coke because you figure they're at least putting forth a good product.
Eric Roberts's performance finally ends up being a little infuriating because he's not given any opportunity or reason to be anything other than amusingly scary. The film falls apart at just the point you wish Roberts would go through the obligatory character alteration, but there's just no chance. He's stranded. Ditto Scacchi. She adorable and makes the sexiest Santa in the history of cinema, but her character's payoff is weak. Bill Kerr is excellent for the most part, but you can't help but feel that his cagey old Outback Vet is a character we've seen a thousand times.
The Coca-Cola Kid's best and most consistent feature is its cinematography by Dean Semler. The Oscar winner (for Dances With Wolves) does what the script and director can't do -- he creates the ironic counterpoint between the Outback, the big city, and Eric Roberts. The film has a dynamic look which, unlike the narrative, doesn't fall apart at the end.
I do feel bad about only giving this movie a 6/10, but I guess I should have just turned it off early. Off to drink a Coke...
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