Thursday, July 20, 2017

B-Movie Review: Beer (1985)

It's a mid-'80s comedy that aspires to make fun of the television advertising industry. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way it forgot the part about being funny.


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@JimboX

Satire ain't easy. That's why for every legitimately great work like Look Who's Back and Four Lions we've got about 20 Canadian Bacons,  30 American Dreamz and I'll be goddamned if it isn't about 40 or 50 Americathons

The problem with satires is that people STILL overlook that thing that makes satires work. A good 95 percent of Hollywood satires are all firmly tongue-in-cheek and exude an air of smug superiority over the content they're mocking or parodying. The movies like to think they don't exist in a vacuum and that not only are they smarter than the stuff they're making fun of, they also think they're smarter than the audience itself. Just take a look at something like Borat, a film that - when it was initially released - was praised as a revolutionary comedic masterpiece but ten years down the road feels dated and has lost almost all of its initial shock value.

You see, the key to a good satire can be found in the greatest satirical work of 'em all, Johnny Swift's A Modest Proposal. What made that satire work was what makes all satires work - simply put, people didn't know it was a satire. If you come out with an over-the-top premise and present it as prima facie absurd - a.k.a, what South Park does - you're defeating the purpose. So many would-be comedians think "satire" is just winking at the audience and creating material that posits itself as intelligent and self-enlightened. WRONG. Satire is meant to make a fool of the crowd and stir within them misplaced emotions. The whole point is to make them think what you're presenting is valid or sincere, and the intrinsic comedy of the situation is the audience reacting to the material as if it was 100 percent serious

People honestly thought Johnny Swift wanted people to eat babies. People honestly thought Daniel Defoe wanted to imprison the homeless and orphans. People honestly thought Bernie Mandeville wanted publicly-subsidized whorehouses. And that's precisely what made them good satires ... because people completely missed their inherent comedy

And the same principle holds true for the cinematic form. So many self-declared satires have come down the pipes over the decades, but the absolute best satires of them all have never been classified as formal comedies. For example, A Clockwork Orange is a tremendous satire about changing sexual mores and the psychiatricization of society, but hardly anybody would label the film "funny." The same holds true for Robocop, which to this day remains the greatest Marxist criticism of the free market ever ... yes, even better than Das Kapital, IMHO. Yet even the greatest "pure" comedy satires of the 20th century - Blazing Saddles and The Kentucky Fried Movie immediately spring to mind - likewise work because they fool the audience into thinking the material is something drastically different than what the filmmakers are really showing them. 

In that, box office non-factor Beer from 1985 is the epitome of a failed Hollywood satire. It's a movie that thinks its perspective on television marketing is so enlightened and above the pitiful considerations of the aggregate American pleb, when absolutely nothing it throws on screen is anything we haven't already thought ourselves a million times before while taking quicker than expected shits. This is the kind of movie that has just convinced itself it's skewering its intended target to death and there's no way said target can ever recover from the lambasting (perhaps what today we call "the Drumpf factor.") It's a film so preoccupied with appearing informed and above the material it's mocking that along the way, it forgets to demonstrate any greater common truths about the human experience that makes us laugh. The Marx Brothers figured that out. Charlie Chaplin figured that out. Preston Sturges figured that out, and this was all before World War II. Beer is a movie that in no way, shape or form attempts to form some sort of communique with the audience, instead blasting its winded diatribe for an hour and a half like some sort of unfunny space heater. And for that, this 32-year-old relic of the Reagan Years is more than worthy of revisiting, if only to demonstrate to young up-and-coming auteurs everything you DON'T want to do as an alleged comedic filmmaker. 

The film begins proper with this Germanic beer baron watching an actual Michelob Light commercial. He's pissed because his marketing firm can't make commercials that good, so every body in the office gets a memo telling them to drag their lily-livered asses into the executive boardroom. 

Anyhoo, sales for Norbecker Beer are plummeting and the CEO (named Mr. Femur, or something that kinda' sounds like it) just berates the shit out of his crew. A creative director pitches an ad featuring construction workers drinking beer and he gets shit canned. Then LORETTA SWIT (yep, Hot Lips from MASH) proposes they trot out a new "everyman" spokes-character - "A man's man that every guy can relate to ... a man driven to individuality when society demands conformity." Damn, she reminds me of Dr. Blight from Captain Planet. I mean, a lot. 

So the CEO signs off on the idea, even though he's not entirely sure what she's talking about. Then Loretta and RIP TORN walk around New York talking about ad ideas while people break dance on the city streets. Torn (his in-universe name is Buzz) is apparently a washed-up, alcoholic old actor. Meanwhile, two guys who just lost their jobs drink foamy beer at a bar. Then David Alan Grier walks into a law firm and asks if he can get an advance and his boss tells him to stay in bankruptcy so it gives him experience handling his own case.

Rip goes into the bar and a real Budweiser commercial plays in the background. Then Grier and the two unemployed guys from earlier start drinking together (and for maximum guffaws, I'm pretty sure the unemployed cowboy guy is the dad from Boy Meets World.) Anyway, there's an armed robbery and Rip asks the gunman why he doesn't just go home and shoot himself, than an old drunk throws the would-be robber's gun back in his face and Grier and the two unemployed dudes tackle him. A follow-up broadcast let us know he killed four dudes at a drive-in theater last year, and Norbecker, of course, offers the three dudes who tackled them jobs as ad characters.

Long story short: if it's a comedy about boozing it up and it DOESN'T star W.C. Fields, cash your chips in early, boys - it's guaranteed to suck a big one.

Grier argues with his wife about leaving his job as a bankruptcy lawyer. "I worked my whole life to keep big radios off your shoulders," he tells his boombox carrying kids. Elsewhere, the Italian bush-headed ad guy is at a wedding or a dinner or something and staring at this one chick who - if I know Italians they way I think I know Italians - is prolly his underage cousin. His grandpa is apparently some mafia heavy hitter. You can tell because they start playing The Godfather-like music as soon as he rolls into the shot.

We've got another meeting with the beer baron guy. He says all beer is the same, referring to it as "fermented, piss colored water." He has apprehensions about banking an entire ad campaign on virtual unknowns and Swit assuages him by saying America wants average Joes instead of has-been football players. And during the spiel, one dude almost chokes to death on a grape, because apparently, somebody thinks that's just funny as shit. 

The cowboy guy talks to Swit about getting his car out of an impound lot for $75. I think she's trying to seduce him, but he's just too stupid to pick up on her advances. For the first commercial, the ad company actually bails out the guy who shot up the bar to reprise his role. But, uh, didn't he kill a whole shit load of people, though? Damn, now that's some clout if you can spring a nigga' from death row just to make a stupid advertisement. 

We see the full commercial, which is an exaggerated pastiche of what actually happened in the robbery. And it goes on for like three minutes. A bunch of drunk bums at a bar say they love the ad and demand the bartender start stocking Norbecker. Then there's a fist fight because one of them called the other a communist and from there we've got ourselves a full-on barroom brawl while the cheesy commercial music plays in the background. Oh, and there's a midget running around doing stuff, too, because ... the director REALLY wanted a midget in there somewhere, I suppose?

Time for a montage of commercials being filmed. The actors are featured on People magazine and apparently, the cowboy guy is sleeping with Hot Lips now. At the next boardroom meeting, another exec forces a woman to shotgun a beer and talks about its implied sexual overtones. Than Hot Lips tells Grier he isn't black enough so he starts watching Def Comedy Jam to sound more like a brotha'. He even practices saying "shee-it" over and over again in a mirror. He shows up for the next commercial dressed like he's in RUN-DMC and calls everbody a blood. Then he break dances, terribly. "When I said black, I didn't mean "black-black," Hot Lips admonishes him.

The dad from Boy Meets World, Blankman's brother and some generic dago - talk about a dream ensemble!

The marketers are worried because women only represent 20 percent of the brand's base consumers, so Hot Lips creates an ad where the trio drives off for a fishing trip with a new catchphrase - "whip out your Norbecker" - and it looks like they are holding a Hispanic woman hostage and forcing her to give the cowboy a hummer against her will. Naturally, the womenfolk ain't too keen on the ad, so the three guys have to go on a Phil Donahue-like talk show except they spend the entire appearance just talking mad shit about feminists in the audience and it's just super. 

The Italian guy goes to confession and tells the priest he can't get his cock up no more. Then the next commercial's tagline is revealed: "I can always get a better girl but I can't get a better beer." The CEO unveils plans to conquer the European market, and it's supposed to sound Hitler-esque because back then, it was OK to laugh about Nazis. Then Grier turns into a slob who just sits around drinking beer and watching TV all day. He sees an ad where he's wearing a Hugh Hefner robe and hanging out with a fine black gal, and then his wife bonks him over the head with a beer bottle because domestic violence is HIGH-LARIOUS when the aggressor is a woman.

Now the feminists have come out in full force to protest Norbecker. Hot Lips says every time they open their mouths, sales go up by a half point. By now, the brand almost has a 50 percent market share. "Divorce, violence in the streets," she says, "we're doing great!"

Then we get this LONG subplot about Rip Torn and the guys getting lost in the desert. Hot Lips suggests they pump the media well dry by taking advantage of their disappearance. Rip films them while they climb over rocks and shit, then the actors wander through the desert half-dead from dehydration. When they are finally rescued, they all have insane sun burns. Well, except for the black guy, but that kinda' goes without saying.

The ad execs review the footage from the desert and decide to recreate the whole affair on a sound stage. Rip Torn is fired and he stumbles into a giant ice bucket. LOL, that is totally hilarious ... NOT. Then the actors get upset and walk off the set, and the cowboy guy says Hot Lips has turned into a fake just like in the commercials she makes. Regardless, she wins a Clio award (a real award for commercials, in case you didn't know) and Grier turns into a full-blown alcohol that gets tossed out of bars for trying to start shit. He unwittingly walks into a gar bar and starts singing songs about turkeys with leather bears, then a barroom brawl breaks out. The whole thing becomes  a great big scandal and beer sales plummet. Alas, the incident gives Norbecker's CEO an idea for a new marketing campaign - one that involves him sitting in a sauna with a bunch of homosexuals drinking light beer. The new catchphrase? "Take it in the bottle or the can!

So Grier becomes a normal family man again, the Italian guy moves back in with his huge ass family and the cowboy dude gets his car back. And that's the end of the line, folks - an engrossing grand finale, to be sure. 

I wouldn't tap it pre-MASH and I sure as hell wouldn't tap it post-MASH, neither.

Well, that was all shades of mediocre, wasn't it? Per the IMDB, this is the only movie directed by Patrick Kelly and it was the first writing gig for Allen Weisbecker - a dude who would then go on to write a couple of episodes of Miami Vice and that's about it. 

Strangely enough, the movie represents rare misses for two of the finest technical wizards in Hollywood history. Believe it or not, the movie's cinematographer Bill Butler also worked on Jaws, Grease and Child's Play, while the music was supplied by none other than BILL FUCKING CONTI, a.k.a they guy that gave us the single greatest soundtrack in motion picture history. I guess I could say it's surprising that guys with such exemplary track records turned in such underwhelming work here, but then again, considering the source material, did anybody REALLY expect them to bring their A game with them?

I couldn't find any substantial box office data on the film, but I guess it's safe to assume it didn't exactly make a killing at theaters. Even worse, the movie didn't even become a late night cable staple, leaving it an untouched obscurity destined to collect dust at mom and pop video stores from coast to coast for the better part of two decades. Pretty much everybody in the cast went on to do bigger and better things - yes, even Rip "Freddy Got Fingered" Torn - but I doubt any actor or actress in the film has any worthwhile recollections of working on the film. I, for one, can't wait to bump into David Alan Grier and grill him about his performance in this flick - how long do you think it'll be before he tries to floor me with a left hook? 

So, all in all, Beer is a real throwaway of a movie, whose inherent forgettableness makes it a great companion piece alongside such equally unimportant '80s comedies as Million Dollar Mystery and The Pope Must Die

It's not a downright awful movie, but it doesn't really have any saving graces, either. Like a flat can of Budweiser, this movie is just there, occupying space as a reminder that you could be enjoying far better things in life. Like musicals about dancing Pakistani terrorists on a mission to assassinate Salman Rushdie - we could all certainly use more films of the like in our day-to-day lives, no? 

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