Michael J. Fox Magnetizes his way to the top of late-1980s Corporate America in Winning Farce.
DIRECTED BY HERBERT ROSS/1987
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 6, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Off the flaming skid marks of Back to the Future and the popular sitcom Family Ties, there was no bigger star than Michael J. Fox. Nowhere is Fox’s skill for precise physical comedy and undeniable magnetism more evident than in 1987’s increasingly mature (though still PG-13) follow-up, The Secret of My Success. Here, playing Kansas farm boy turned NYC corporate worker bee Brantley Foster, we witness peak Michael J. Fox: the world’s coolest clown- an oxymoron that few before or since would embody so well.
Director Herbert Ross (Footloose, Pennies from Heaven), taking more than one stylistic cue from John Hughes, grafts a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) veneer of slick absurdity over the otherwise typically farcical proceedings of the screenplay. It helps to have Bueller’s editor Paul Hirsch (a frequent Ross collaborator and Oscar-winning master of visual rhythm) at work- even if the re-use of “Oh Yeah” by Yello (twice!) takes the connection one step too far. (Though arguably, one could make the case that Hirsch has his way with the song far more effectively here than in Hughes’s now-classic). We can see Success striving for that era-specific quirky-cool brass ring, and not quite grabbing it. It is, however, a valiant and fully entertaining effort. (This wouldn’t be the first time that Fox bounded by association on the coattails of Matthew Broderick. Fox reportedly landed his star-making role on Family Ties after Broderick had to pass).
Fully embracing the materialistic ethos of its moment, Success spins if not gold then luscious copper from its Reagan-era premises of sex and power over most else. Like Reagan, the film ignores AIDS and basks openly in the limousines & largeness of the moment. Never mind that the corporation that Brantley is slyly playing is just another big empty shell, full of suits and shuffle; acquisition of status within that construct, as vapid as every aspect is, is the winning endgame. As crass as that culture reads today, the world blindly ran with it then. Evidence throughout explicitly states that Ross and company were fully aware of the soul-rotting nature of such a scene, but in 1987 Hollywood, filmmakers simply didn’t know how not to deliver on its devilish promises.
Brantley doesn’t so much climb the corporate ladder as he remove it. After striking out in many a legitimate job interview, he swallows his dignity and crawls to his “uncle” Howard Prescott (Robert Jordan), a high-powered executive, for work. Prescott, ever the yelling hard ass, obliges him with a lowly mail room assignment. Brantley, though, being smarter than everyone else, studies some internal memos, establishes a second identity, and takes over an abandoned corner office. This requires a lot of frantic quick-changes of wardrobe (often being caught in his boxers by his aghast secretary), though soon enough, he’s the outspoken star of board meetings, tossing off common sense (and even vaguely ethical) solutions to uselessly convoluted business problems.
But, he still has to work in the mail room. Also, in a delirium of her slow-motion walk, her women’s shoulder pads and her shellacked-on cosmetics, Brantley falls in love with the attractive Christy- the only female executive in the place, played by Helen Slater. Although Christy gets this a lot, how can she resist Michael J. Fox? The trouble is, she’s already seeing Uncle Howard…(!) while Brantley has already been seduced by Howard’s wife, Vera (Margaret Whitton). (!!!) And that right there, dear reader, is why the murkiness of these exact family ties is a blessing to all- both in the film, and to those of us watching it.
Entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman gives a busy commentary on the film, available as an optional audio track. He seems almost distracted by his own verbal stream of consciousness, detouring frequently from the film itself to talk about how New York City has changed since Ross, Fox, and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma made it pop for this movie. Although Reesman dodges the pitfall of reading everyone’s resumes, his quick clip can become tiring to track with. Nevertheless, lots of keen insights and information are there to be had.
The other big bonus feature is a new interview with co-star Helen Slater. This having been conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the interview was done online, and consequently is very low-resolution. The quality of the video earns the piece its opening disclaimer text, though Slater’s thoughts and memories on the film (particularly on how it’s a product of its moment) are well worth having as part of this Blu-ray, even in these makeshift times. The video and audio quality of the movie itself really pops- all those late-80s rock tunes no doubt ever sounded fuller on home video.
Despite the shift away from the corporate values on display and the clompy four-way romance involving the main character’s (remote) aunt and uncle, The Secret of My Success still manages to succeed. The reason is anything but a secret: Herbert Ross knew how to utilize Michael J. Fox. The film’s use of original songs (and that favored go-to “Walking on Sunshine”) is less timeless (no song, it seems, plays only once in this movie). But like Brantley’s zigzaggy life situation, it all works out.