The Coca-Cola Kid has gone down in the folklore of the Australian film industry as a prime example as a project which looked great at the outset, but went horribly wrong in the making.
It promised not only the meeting of an internationally acclaimed, radical filmmaker (Dusan Makavejev) with one of the most respected Australian fiction writers (Frank Moorhouse), but also a definitive treatment of a theme beloved of Australian cinema – the uneasy, often hostile, tortuously ambivalent relation between American and Australian societies, allegorised in a tale of the stranger in a strange land. (For other takes on this theme, see The Picture Show Man , Newsfront , Duet for Four , Undercover , Razorback  and Crocodile Dundee ).
However, Makavejev reportedly had a very difficult time both on set and with his producers, and the finished film betrays fundamental uncertainties of concept, tone and pitch. (For a colourful account of these problems, see Moorhouse's 1990 book Lateshows.)
It is a difficult film to discuss because, thematically, it is completely incoherent. The meanings of individual scenes and certain thematic threads are quite clear, but taken together they make no sense at all.
In the first act (generally agreed to be the most successful section), the film seems bent on a heavy-handed satire of the corporate, fast-talking, tight-assed, fundamentalist American way of life, incarnated in Becker (Eric Roberts in a rather overwrought performance). To this repressive, control-freak, hyper-capitalist mode of existence, Makavejev interestingly opposes (as he does in his other films) a (peculiarly Australian) schizo system of being – loose, eccentric, merrily inefficient, spontaneously mixing up the public and private spheres of life (as for instance in the amusing early scene where the mad Greenie played by Chris Haywood spills apples in the office of his ex-wife Terri [Greta Scacchi], as he tries unceremoniously to hump her).
Dovetailed into this, Moorhouse's distinctive thematic contribution is a portrait of the many droll strategies of evasion employed by Australians (inscrutable sense of humour, silence, apathy, cunning) in the face of American takeovers.
These thematic developments are abruptly aborted with the introduction of T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), the last remaining small-time 'bush capitalist', who manufactures his own cola. Not merely switching at this point into what Ross Gibson (Filmnews September 1985) called a "politically vulgar drama of nostalgic nationalism versus empire", the film attempts to work up a sympathetic mirroring relation between the frontier styles of Becker and McDowell – with urban Australia now cast as a hellish site of sexual ambiguity and treachery (see the terrible scene of Terri's decadent inner-city party).
We are asked as viewers both to approve the necessary degradation of Becker as he learns to loosen up, and to feel sorry for his plight as a beleaguered outsider with some fine, old-fashioned ideas of progress. Onto all this is superimposed an unreadable Oedipal plot, with McDowell as the father who must be transgressed by the son Becker to win the mother/daughter figure Terri.
The meaning of many passing details and sub-plots in the film seems wildly unfixed. Early on is a neat joke (somewhat reprised by Gulpilil in Crocodile Dundee) about a supposedly savage, didjeridu-playing Aborigine who turns out to have a showbiz agent, signalling a witty and knowing subversion of conservative stereotypes. But later, a conniving waiter at Becker's hotel is portrayed, in a completely reactionary fashion, as the classic insane (and slimily crypto-gay) left-wing terrorist.
Throughout, Scacchi is sadly made the repository of an assortment of backward male projections – randy secretary, earth-mother-showering-with-child (a scene which David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation calls "quite gratuitous" but "very sweet and very beautiful"), ditsy airhead, life force, source of redemption for the battered hero .
Perhaps the most charitable notion that could be advanced to defend the film is that Makavejev's celebration of anarchic schizo systems naturally extends to the filmmaking process itself – resulting in a work that is perhaps deliberately decentred, shifting and blissfully contradictory. If Makavejev is indeed (as Gibson suggests) in "pursuit of a 'primitive' cinema", he has certainly produced a wildly primitive film on this occasion.
The Coca-Cola Kid, however, is ultimately an unredeemable failure, lost or abandoned somewhere between commercial calculation and radical experimentation.
© Adrian Martin 1991