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Beer
(1985)

Director: Patrick Kelly  
Cast:
Loretta Swit, Rip Torn, Kenneth Mars, David Allen Grier


When we are born, we are born with a clean slate for a brain. And about the time that babies figure out they can get attention for their dirty diaper or milk craving by crying endlessly, that slate starts to get filled with various ideas and philosophies. And as people get older, that slate continues to be written on until people die or get severe Alzheimer's or dementia. But it's during the early years of life, when one is not yet a teenager, where one is possibly influenced the most and affects how they think or choose much later in life. I'll tell you one way people are shaped and formed during their youths, and that is with advertising. Advertising makes a great impact on most children. I'll prove it by pointing out to the television show Sesame Street. The creators of Sesame Street, while planning the show, had noticed that kids loved commercials on radio and TV for their catchy yet brief jingles, so they designed much of their show to play out in a similar way to those commercials, which they still do today. (I do wish some advertiser would make a commercial with an annoying squeaky-voiced red monster spouting bad grammar that gets run over by a steamroller, in the hopes that Sesame Street would imitate that commercial on their show.) I can tell you that when I was a child, commercials did influence me to some degree. I remember seeing cold cereal commercials on television during Saturday morning, and wondering why my family would instead eat generic hot cereal for breakfast. Though I found the idea of chocolate or sugar-coated cereal for breakfast disgusting even as a kid, the commercials indicated that cool and hip kids ate this stuff. I wanted to be cool and hip. I wanted to belong.

As it turned out, I never became cool or hip growing up, not just because of the fact my mother would never buy Captain Crunch or Count Chocula. I was pretty much an outcast growing up. But now that I am grown up, to some degree I am glad I was never one of the in crowd. It seemed like a lot of work and expense to keep up with what advertisers claimed that those that were "with it" had or used. Not having all that pressure, I found I had to make my own mind about stuff that I saw advertised. The majority of toy advertisements made me yawn, since I was more into computers even at a young age. Car advertisements? I wasn't old enough to drive, and where the heck would I go in a car? Still, I have to admit that there were some particular ads that would intrigue me about the product being advertised. One of those products that intrigued me the most was beer. In countless advertisements, beer seemed to be the hip thing, the product that MEN would drink and find enjoyable to the palate. But being underage, it was out of my reach, a forbidden fruit of sorts. I wanted what those beer guzzlers had in their hands, because it would mean that I was hip, that I was a grownup. I still remember when I finally had my first taste of beer. I was like, "That's it?" It didn't seem that much far removed from all the soda pop I had been drinking up to that time. Nothing magical happened sipping a beer for me. I was real let down by all that advertising I had witnessed over the years. In fact, I was so disappointed by beer that I soon after pretty much stopped drinking it. Today I stick with soda pop - it's cheaper than beer, and satisfies my palate.

From what I have written so far in this review, you might be wondering why I would take a look at a movie called Beer, when in real life beer does not appeal to me. There are several reasons. While beer the drink does not appeal to me, I am interested in the various ways it is marketed. The Beerhard-sell attitude of many beer advertisements can frequently give some insight into modern western culture, something I find interesting. And Beer promised to be a look at beer advertising, albeit one in a satirical vein. Also, making fun of beer drinking was an appealing idea to this strictly dry reviewer. More importantly, I had seen the movie years and years ago, and my vague memories told me it had some genuine laughs. Seeing the movie again years later, did I find it a frothy comedy, or one that was flat? Well, first of all, the plot. The movie starts off with A. J. Norbecker (Mars, The Producers), president of the Norbecker brewing company, in a rage. Sales for his company's product have as much fizz as a beer left open for a week, and he threatens the ad agency working for him with dismissal. Harley Freemer (played by Peter Michael Goetz), the head of the advertising agency, gives responsibility for a new ad campaign to advertising executive B. D. Tucker (Swit, M*A*S*H). While she stops in a bar with her filmmaking friend Buzz Beckerman (Torn, Men In Black), they witness a robbery inadvertently thwarted by three patrons of the establishment, who are played by David Allen Grier (In Living Color), William Russ (American History X), and Saul Stein. Tucker promptly hires the three men to star in a series of Norbecker beer commercials, and not just any old commercials. These new commercials pump up the supposed toughness of the three men and brag that Norbecker is the beer of choice for tough men. Soon the commercials get more outrageous, containing blatant sexism that outrages women but contributes to Norbecker increasing its sales greatly.

Beer was made by a major Hollywood studio, but it seems that the film company's executives at the last minute got feet as cold as the brew that sits at the bottom of your refrigerator, because the movie got almost no release in theaters. My research failed to uncover the precise reason (or reasons) the studio threw away this movie, but I have some theories that I feel are pretty plausible. One likely contributing factor may have been that the movie contains no really big stars - Swit and Torn, though undoubtedly known by some, have never been really famous, and Grier didn't become famous in a mainstream sense until much later in his career. Another factor that may have made the movie executives nervous is the movie's numerous stabs at what would be called today political incorrectness. Minorities and women are targeted in ways some people even back in those simpler times might have found offensive. Those reasons may have played a factor in the studio's lack of faith in the movie, but I think the biggest reason may have been that the movie's satirical look at the beer advertising world at times jabs quite sharply towards the general population. For example, when the commercials are first being planned, the Tucker character and others make comments like that the target audience for their commercials is "lower class, unsuccessful men", and that these people are looking for "an average man who has the brains and savvy to stay on top of the world." With that attitude combined with the actual filmed commercials, which are broadly played, the studio may have felt that a general audience - which for the most part has beer as their drink of choice - might have felt insulted and would have stayed away from the theaters the movie was playing in.

It's too bad that Beer suffered the fate that it did, and remains pretty unknown to this day. I am not saying that it is one of the best comedies that I have seen, but it made me smile, chuckle, and even laugh out loud enough times that I would recommend you give it a watch if you should come across it. There is some genuinely funny stuff here. Some of the biggest laughs come from the commercials featuring the new Norbecker spokesmen. They are pretty dead-on parodies of beer commercials of this period, such as using similarly voiced announcers as well as soundalike background singers chanting the beer's jingle. Even funnier are the ways the commercials take the macho and sometimes sexist attitudes of real beer commercials and crank them up to outrageous levels. There are other moments in the movie filled with just as much, if not more, humor. Possibly the funniest scene in the movie is when the three spokesmen are invited to discuss the controversial commercials on a talk show that's obviously modeled on Donahue, with Dick Shawn (Evil Roy Slade) playing the overly enthusiastic white-haired talk show host. He is very funny; in fact, all of the cast is well-chosen, making their characters come across as very likable people despite being involved with such an insulting and sexist ad campaign. Incidentally, each of the main characters has at least one piece of the movie that focuses on them, which enables the actors to show off their comic skills. David Allen Grier, for example, has a hilarious scene when he arrives at the studio to perform after retraining himself when the Tucker character told him earlier that he was "not black enough". His subsequent performance may not be very P.C., but it is so absurd it becomes very funny.

Although the aim of Beer is to make the audience laugh, it also occasionally gives an interesting touch of realism to what is happening, touches that you could see happening in real life. One character states early in the movie that most beers are just the same, and what really makes a beer successful is not its taste but instead its advertising campaign. Very true words, if you ask me. Also, take Swit's character, for example. She is the only female member of the advertising scene, and her presence is resented by many of the men. (One executive doesn't make much effort in hiding his calling her a lesbian.) And I could believe when she starts making commercials that start insulting people of the same sex she is. Critic Pauline Kael once said at a Women in Film awards ceremony that she didn't believe that the women there wanted to remake the motion picture industry, instead that they just wanted the same jobs men had, and to do the same things men did. I can see that happening in the advertising world as well. Still, I had a problem with this plot about the sexist ads. When it is revealed to feminists on the talk show that the person behind these sexist ads is a woman, you would think the feminists would do something, or at least say something in response. But nothing of the sort subsequently happens. The movie also has some other glaring problems, mostly confined to the last third of the running time. For example, when the three spokesmen start to have second thoughts about their jobs, what leads them to this is a subplot both so drawn out and not giving them a real chance to express their feelings to anyone that their change of heart seems phony, especially when we remember them greatly enjoying their fame and fortune earlier in the movie. Still, despite problems like those, Beer has enough flavor and goes down smoothly enough to make this an enjoyable enough romp.

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See also: Cold Turkey, Prime Time, Zoo Radio

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