Becker (Eric Roberts), a marketing genius, travels to Sydney from the United States to boost sales of Coca-Cola in Australia. He’s a hired gun, of sorts, sent by Coca-Cola headquarters to drum up business. The laid-back executives at the Sydney office don’t know what to make of him, but are told by the brass, “Don’t try to understand him. Just know that he doubles and triples sales.” Staff in the Sydney branch decide, wisely, to leave him alone. Given free rein, Becker looks for weaknesses in the Aussie market. A distribution map of the country shows a glaring hole in Coke sales. Rural Anderson Valley sells no Coke at all. Becker heads to the region to find out why. In Anderson Valley, Becker meets T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), an autocratic businessman who makes his own brand of soft drinks and controls the soda market there.
T. George’s passion and entrepreneurship impress Becker. His old-fashioned, but well-run factory turns out delicious products and employs many of the town’s residents. Still, even T. George is no match for the Coca-Cola machine. The writing’s on the wall. Becker wants to bring in Coke and squeeze T. George out of his own territory.
THE COCA-COLA KID has a simple plot and could take place in Australia or even rural Mississippi or Maine if it stuck with the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach. It’d also be an average film and be over in thirty-five minutes. What takes it to the next level are the characters and tangential stories Frank Moorhouse weaves into the screenplay. One involves an aboriginal didgeridoo player, Mr. Joe (Steve Dodd) and other local musicians; another, a hotel bellman (David Slingsby), in a subversive political organization who mistakes Becker for a CIA agent. A third story revolves around Terri (Greta Scacchi), Becker’s secretary in Sydney and her chaotic home life and history.
You’ll see familiar faces in THE COCA-COLA KID. Some Australian ‘that guys’ make appearances along with musicians Ricky Fataar and Tim Finn.
Finn also wrote the original songs and the faux Coke ad which features Mr. Joe on the didgeridoo. It’s a catchy tune. Bill Kerr was a popular and well-known Australian actor and I noticed at least two cast members from THE ROAD WARRIOR. Rebecca Smart plays the precocious DMZ beautifully. Greta Scacchi’s role is not as fleshed-out as it could be, but she does a nice job with it as a flaky working mom with a complicated backstory. She and Roberts have great chemistry. Finally, Eric Roberts, plays Becker as a perfectionist who sees Coca-Cola as an extension of the Unites States and espouses its virtues with evangelical zeal. He’s thrown himself into his work and eschewed a personal life.
He’s not like Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS though. He has a tender heart and Roberts has the acting chops for it. In the 1980s, Eric Roberts made some terrific films. STAR 80, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, RUNAWAY TRAIN, and THE COCA-COLA KID all show his talent and range.
During Becker’s mission, he meets a string of quirky, unpredictable characters which bring to mind the Bill Forsyth films LOCAL HERO and COMFORT AND JOY. As I thought more about it, I realized one of the offbeat players in THE COCA-COLA KID is Australia itself. Director, Dusan Makavejev lets the camera linger on the scenery as well as the actors. Like LOCAL HERO, the place has a personality. It’s foreign to Becker. Everyone speaks English, but they all function so differently from the businessmen Becker deals with that it throws him. His neat, orderly world changes and it hits him hard. He generally rolls in, sizes up the competition, makes changes, and jets home to Atlanta to await his next assignment. He doesn’t get involved in the private lives of his employees. He doesn’t meet odd people. He doesn’t get excited or upset. He does his job, then leaves. The funky wonderfulness of Australia and its people gets to him. It got to me too. I saw THE COCA-COLA KID when it came out in 1985 and I hoped Australia was like this. Maybe it never was, but I like it anyway.