The "Coca-Cola Kid" starts out as a lively satire of American business, posing a young Harvard MBA as a pin-striped cowboy attempting to claim a piece of the Australian outback for Coca-Cola. But Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev, like a ham-handed juggler in a high wind, thwarts his promising idea by tossing up a jumble of plot detours and subplots that never come down.
Set in Australia, written by an Australian, directed by a Yugoslavian, and starring an American (the scenic Eric Roberts), the movie also suffers from a bizarre sense of cultural confusion. Small errors -- the southern hero's mother speaks with a broad New York accent -- collide with the questionable premise that Australia is less capitalist than the United States to create a junkyard of inapt allusions.
Roberts' character, for example, an American named Becker, is conceived as a villain but comes across as a hero. An ex-Marine with degrees in both business and theology and a reputation for boosting sales wherever he goes, Becker emerges as a strait-laced, humorless hunk. He looks like a Gentleman's Quarterly pinup, except for his strangely peroxided hair, which seems more a hairdresser's mistake than a comment on his masculinity.
Since the girl who pursues him is an aggressive gum-chewer with pretensions to coyness, his resistance seems more sensible than puritanical. Since the Coca-Cola employes he has come to help appear to be lazy bumblers, his gung-ho attitude seems more appropriate than threatening. And since he never does anything as ruthless as the Australians do, his role as the crude and relentless capitalist is never realized.
At times the script seems the product of late-night bull sessions rather than a coherent train of thought. The rejected sexpot traps Becker in a party of transvestites and humiliates the poor fellow to tears -- for no apparent reason. She turns out to be the daughter of his professional rival as well -- but there is no hint of explanation for her estrangement from her father.
Roberts is very appealing as Becker, despite his hair, and if the filmmakers had wanted a romantic comedy -- one of many ideas they flirt with in the course of this scatterbrained exercise -- he and the saucy Greta Scacchi would have made a good duo.
Had they followed a satirical line, they might have focused on the lone MBA riding into the bush with a convoy of Coke trucks, bent on converting natives to the Real Thing, and sweeping up his rival's daughter along the way. That too, might have been an entertaining film.
As it stands, the forced resolution of the story has the Australian soft-drink king blowing up his quaint factory rather than taking on Coca-Cola, and Becker's subsequent resignation from business life is thoroughly unconvincing and unsatisfying. The Australian, for one thing, shows every sign of being able to beat Coca-Cola to a pulp, being a conniving, relentless empire builder himself.
Apparently the real Coca-Cola company refused to cooperate with the making of the film, but has not moved to sue the filmmakers either. A wise choice, because neither the "dark and bubbly liquid" nor the capitalist zest of its company is unflatteringly portrayed despite the filmmaker's obvious intent.
There may be an ulterior motive to showing a young American with brains, beauty and energy done in by wily, lusty and devious Australians. It may be part of a propaganda war to convince Americans they have no hope of retrieving the America's Cup in Perth in 1987. But if the Australians sail no better than they executed this film, America has little to worry about.