'80s comedies, ad agencies, advertising agency, advertising industry, Alan C. Peterson, Alar Aedma, alcoholism, Allan Weisbecker, alternate title, bad films, battle of the sexes, Beer, Bill Butler, Bill Conti, brewery, cinema, comedies, David Alan Grier, David Wohl, Dick Shawn, directorial debut, film reviews, films, homophobia, husband-wife relationship, Kenneth Mars, Loretta Swit, masculinity, Mel Brooks, misogyny, Movies, Norbecker, offensive films, over-the-top, Patrick Kelly, Peter Michael Goetz, racist, Rip Torn, satire, Saul Stein, sexist, silly films, spoof, The Selling of America, TV ads, unlikely heroes, William Russ
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that manages to genuinely surprise me, for one reason or another. It might be a film that’s surprisingly good or even unexpectedly great. It might be a “sure thing” that fails miserably, maybe something by a beloved filmmaker that manages to completely miss the mark. On very rare occasions, a movie might surprise with an unexpectedly thought-provoking concept or some heretofore unexplored insights into the human condition. And then, of course, there’s Beer (1985), also known by the much more on-the-nose title The Selling of America.
In this particular case, Beer surprises by being one of the most outrageously misguided, casually offensive films that I think I’ve ever seen. Coming across as a completely tone-deaf attempt to emulate the societal critique of Mel Brooks’ immortal Blazing Saddles (1974), Kelly’s film is stuffed to bursting with so many outdated, honestly offensive observations on race, feminism, masculinity, nationality, gender and sexuality that it makes something like Porky’s (1982) seem progressive. Beer is a “have your cake and eat it, too” kind of film, a movie that wants to shake a finger at society’s ills while gleefully indulging in the same sort of bad behavior.
A.J. Norbecker (Mel Brooks mainstay Kenneth Mars) has a bit of a problem: the German-born brewery owner is experiencing an unprecedented drop in sales and he places the blame squarely on the advertising agency that’s handling his promotional material. As Norbecker sees it, all beer is just “piss-water”: it’s the ads that really make the difference and he wants ads as cool as Miller and the other major players. To that end, he gives the agency’s president, Harley Feemer (Peter Michael Goetz), an ultimatum: beef up their campaign, increase his sales or lose their biggest client.
Behind the scenes, Feemer and the other guys try, in vain, to come up with anything original. Leave it to B.D. Tucker (M.A.S.H.’s Loretta Swit), the agency’s “token female executive” (their phrase, of course) to come up with the only good idea: they need an ad campaign that will appeal to the common, everyday man who’s the actual market for Norbecker Beer…nothing posh, highfalutin’ or pretentious, just a bunch of normal, macho guys drinking beer. Hiring her old friend, former hotshot director/current washed-up alcoholic Buzz Beckerman (Rip Torn, consuming scenery like a black hole), B.D. goes about putting together the ad campaign that will reset Norbecker’s fortune and secure her own future.
As luck would have it, B.D. and Buzz find their ideal spokesmen when they witness a trio of doofuses accidentally stop an attempted robbery in a dive bar. The three guys are perfect for their purposes, mostly because they’re not real people so much as generic templates: Merle (William Russ) is a good-ol’-boy (complete with steer horns on his Cadillac) fish out of water in big, bad New York City; Frankie (Saul Stein) is an Italian-American construction worker with a raging libido and the kind of enormous, stereotypical Italian family that passes around bowls of pasta large enough to drown in; and Elliot (David Alan Grier) is an uber-nerdy black lawyer who gets pushed around at his blatantly racist firm and fights a losing battle, at home, to prevent his young son from listening to boomboxes (no, really).
In no time at all, Merle, Frankie and Elliot are national heroes and superstars: all men want to be them and all women want to bed them, which is quite a change from their former loser/unemployed statuses. With new-found fame, however, comes a whole new raft of problems. Merle begins to feel a loss of identity and pines for the simpler life, Frankie develops erectile dysfunction just as he becomes a sex symbol and formerly nice-guy Elliot is starting to treat his wife and kid like crap. As the men become more and more wrapped-up in their manufactured personas, their real selves begin to fall by the wayside.
As the campaign continues to pick up steam, B.D. looks to find new ways to keep her manufactured stars in the media spotlight, mostly by injecting some all-important sex appeal into the proceedings (“Whip out your Norbecker…Beer!). With feminists around the country in an uproar, Norbecker Beer becomes more popular than ever, cornering a whopping 50% of the U.S. market. Norbecker, obviously ecstatic, sets his sights a little higher: he decides that he wants to take over the European market, as well, believing that a “surprise advertising blitz” will allow him to take over Germany (his first name is Adolph, after all). Will our hapless heroes end up losing their very humanity, becoming as callous and ruthless as the Madison Avenue execs that made them what they are? Will B.D. ever earn the respect that she so desperately wants? Will Adolph conquer Europe? Whip out your Norbecker and find out for yourself!
Make no bones about it: Beer (or The Selling of America, whichever you prefer) is an absolute mess, albeit a fascinating one. The biggest, most obvious issue with the film is that director Patrick Kelly (on his sole production, apparently) and screenwriter Allan Weisbecker (who also wrote an episode of Miami Vice) have absolutely no grasp on the supposedly satirical material whatsoever. Beer ends up in that nebulous “no-man’s-land” between pointing out the systematic stupidity of things like sexism and racism and actively upholding said prejudicial viewpoints. It’s the equivalent of someone who goes out of their way to explain that they aren’t racist before busting out the most virulently racist joke you’ve ever heard. It’s the “feminist” who drops a wink while telling women to get back into the kitchen, the “progressive” who thinks the term “twinkletoes” is a perfectly acceptable descriptor for a gay man.
Time and time again, the film seems to be attempting to poke holes in these very real issues while also attempting to milk them for easy, shallow laughs, many of which end up being more than a little mean-spirited. At one point, B.D. tells Elliot that he isn’t “black enough,” so he goes home and watches a handy “black studies” videotape, picking up such important tips as grabbing his crotch, swaggering and walking around with a boombox. When he shows up to the next shoot looking like an extra from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985), B.D. is absolutely shocked: “You look like you just stepped out of the ghetto! When I said ‘black,’ I didn’t mean ‘black-black’!” Funny shit, right?
Or how about the thoroughly “fresh” way in which Frankie’s entire family seems to have stepped out of a dinner-theater version of Mama Mia, complete with endless shouting and fainting when our friendly mook reveals that he plans to move out of their unbelievably crowded apartment? He’s only 29, after all, which is way too early for a good Italian boy to cut the apron strings. Frankie’s also such a completely irresistible ladies’ man that even when he can’t get it up, his conquest-of-the-moment blames it all on herself, begging him profusely for the opportunity to “do better” and not “disappoint him.” Whatta guy, right?
We even get a heart-warming, climatic scene where Merle and Frankie must wade into the “horrors” of a gay bar and “rescue” poor, drunk Elliot from a fate worse than death: that the scene devolves into the kind of rousing fist fight that would be more at home in Road House (1989) probably goes a long way towards indicating where the filmmakers sympathies lie. Never fear, however: it’s all balanced when ol’ Norbecker decides to market a new “lite” beer to gay men. As we see him cavort with a bunch of half-naked men in a sauna, he delivers the immortal pitch-line: “You can take it in the bottle or you can take it in the can.” Because, you know, “can” is also used as a slang word for “butt” and that’s kind of funny, right?
Truth be told, not much in Beer is actually funny, though nearly all of it is pitched at the kind of frantic, hysterical pace that usually denotes slapstick comedy. There are moments that manage to shine through the mess: the various TV commercials are actually pretty good and Buzz gets in a great line about how he once made Alan Ladd look “six feet tall” (I’m a movie nerd: that’s the kind of reference that makes me chuckle, sadly enough). The acting is also just fine (or, at the very least, it’s all of a piece with the film’s overall tone), with fantastic turns from David Alan Grier (in a very thankless role) and Loretta Swit (in an even more thankless role).
While I frequently found myself cringing during the film, my heart really went out to poor Swit: she really is a great actress and she gives the performance her all but it’s a ruthlessly stacked deck, from the get-go. Nothing about the character of B.D. really makes sense (at one point, she actively fights against sexualizing the ads, only to flip-flop a moment later) and the filmmakers seem bound and determined to humiliate her as much as possible. Rather than letting B.D. succeed, since she mounted a successful ad campaign and won a coveted CLEO award, we instead get the pathetic culmination where Merle comes to his senses and decides to leave, spurring B.D. to bed him to stay: “Do I have to get down on my knees,” she asks, with her tone and body language pointing to the obvious.
Turning B.D. into the butt of the film’s joke actually manages to sum up the movie’s problems in a pretty good nutshell: while Beer makes noises about tackling issues like sexism, racism and masculinity, it’s pretty clear that its sympathies lie elsewhere. The feminist protesters are portrayed as shrill nuts, the gay men in the club are lascivious wolves, the German guy is power-mad and the only one who makes any sense is the guy who looks like he stepped out of an old Western. It’s a stacked deck, regardless of how ridiculous the prejudicial portrayals are: showcasing an eye-rollingly obvious example of racism isn’t the same thing as condemning or commenting on it, after all.
There will, undoubtedly, be many who would counter my observations with the rejoinder that Beer is nothing more than a typical, ’80s comedy (almost, but not quite, a sex comedy, to boot): was I really expecting any kind of astute observations on anything? I’ll freely admit that I never expected Beer to be a great film, nor even a particularly smart one. There’s nothing wrong with dumb, politically incorrect comedies: I saw more than my fair share of Police Academy and Porky’s movies, growing up, and I don’t consider myself to be a raging, misogynist beast. This is a very different era than 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago, to be honest) and certain mindsets have a tendency to look as quaint as museum setpieces in this day and age.
At the end of the day, however, Beer can really only be judged on its own merits. As a film, it’s silly, nonsensical, occasionally funny but, for the most part, resoundingly lunk-headed. With too many detours into genuine racism and sexism to have much modern value, Beer/The Selling of America will probably best be remembered as a curio, a representation of a time when films could flaunt flagrant stereotypes, all in the guise of “making a statement.” Don’t be fooled, though: the only statement here is that this Beer is warm, flat and skunky.