July 2, 2012

Somebody ought to make a funny movie that satirizes the horrible state of modern beer commercials. You know, the ones that show the manly men doing manly things and then washing down the day with a few draughts of suds.

Usually, they’re working on the assembly line, hiking through the Rockies, or fly-casting after large-mouth bass. Then, when they’re knocking back the brewskis later, one guy gets dewy-eyed and says, “Fellas, it doesn’t get any better than this.” All of which, in some mysterious but subtly related way, helps make America great again, or so we’re to understand.

Yes, the genre is ripe for lampooning. But don’t let the people who made Beer do it; they had their shot, and they blew it.

Beer is about an advertising agency’s frantic efforts to boost the sales of their top client, Norbecker Beer. Old man Norbecker (Kennth Mars) threatens to drop the agency if they don’t come up with something good, pronto.

So, an agency executive (Loretta Swit) and a director (Rip Torn) are sipping a Norbecker in a bar one night when their solution is delivered to them. A stick-up man goes berserk, and is subdued, more or less, by three yo-yos who happen to be standing there.

Swit and Torn seize these guys, sign them up, and film a series of macho commercials, which turn the trio into wildly popular American heroes. So what if they’re accused of sexism (“Whip Out Your Norbecker” is the ad slogan) and given a liberal going-over by a Phil Donahue-like talk show host (Dick Shawn). They’re making a bundle of money, and the sales of Norbecker have gone through the roof of the brewery.

Now, this is not a completely terrible idea for a movie. There’s just a hint of the flavor of classic Preston Sturges movies in the vaulting of the unknowns to stardom, and in the possibility for an absurdist twist on the American Dream.

But Beer is a mess. It’s a free-for-all, with desperate potshots doled out to offend the usual minority groups. The performers are uninspired, with the exception of Peter Michael Goetz, who does manic work as the ad agency president. And the director, Patrick Kelly, displays no sense of the internal logic this kind of satirical jaunt should have, so the film just falls flat when it should be (pardon the phrase) hopping along.

First published in the Herald, December 25, 1985

IMDb says Sandra Bernhard was cast in the lead role, then replaced by Loretta Swit, which explains at least something. This is the kind of movie I think of when I remember reviewing movies in the 1980s: no press screening, a drive into the suburbs on a Friday afternoon, and an absolutely non-cinematic experience unfolding on screen. Within a very few years (less than five, I would say), this level of film would not open in theaters, but go “straight to video,” a new phrase that came to have many different meanings.