The Secret of My Success, 1987.
Directed by Herbert Ross.
Starring Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, Richard Jordan, Margaret Whitton, John Pankow, Fred Gwynne.
A college kid from Kansas moves to New York and blags his way to the top of a multinational corporation, falling in love along the way.
For a few years during the mid-to-late 1980s you couldn’t really get away from Michael J. Fox as the fresh-faced young actor seemed to be everywhere, appearing in several successful movies alongside his regular TV role in sitcom Family Ties. But in between his breakout movie role in Back to the Future and critical acclaim in more serious material like the Vietnam drama Casualties of War there was The Secret of My Success, a comedy that doesn’t always get the same recognition as Fox’s other hits but is probably worth another look if it has been a while.
Brantley Foster (Fox) is an ambitious college graduate from rural Kansas who moves to the bright lights of New York City to make his fortune. However, when Brantley arrives in the Big Apple he discovers the office job he had lined up has fallen through so he hits the big companies looking for a job, but as he has no practical experience he gets turned down. Refusing to return home with his tail between his legs he contacts his ‘uncle’ Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan – Logan’s Run), a distant relative via Brantley’s mother’s cousin, who happens to be the CEO of a huge multinational corporation. Initially reluctant to give Brantley a job, the hot-headed Prescott gives in after Brantley appeals to his ego and Brantley is given a job in the mail room but it isn’t long before he has his eye on a vacant office on the upper floors and a plan to blag himself an executive position by going under the name of Carlton Whitfield, along the way falling for pretty accountant Christy Wills (Helen Slater – Supergirl) as Whitfield and avoiding the advances of Prescott’s wife Vera (Margaret Whitton – Major League) as Foster.
So it’s basically a mistaken identity comedy set to the backdrop of yuppie-filled 1980s New York and as such it hits all the beats you would expect. In fact, thanks to some script rewrites it hits a few too many familiar beats as there is quite a lot crammed into what is essentially a simple story, making it feel a little stodgy at times. There are quick clothes changes, sneaking between bedrooms in a huge house, pretending to be two different people at an event, quick-witted boardroom meetings and the grumpy mail room manager trying to catch the new boy out, and to be honest it doesn’t offer anything you can’t see in any farce or slapstick comedy usually done a bit better (there are some glaring continuity errors) but there are two factors that make this quite watchable – an on-top-of-his-game Michael J. Fox at the peak of his charismatic early career, his innocent, easy charm making him instantly likeable, and a wild performance from Margaret Whitton as the frustrated Vera, who has taken a shine to young Brantley and has apparently never heard the word ‘no’.
The other actors offer fairly solid support, including a five-minute appearance from Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) as a corporate bigwig, but unfortunately the film tends to hit a brick wall every time Helen Slater opens her mouth, and not only is her line delivery as unconvincing as Brantley’s clocking-in card but she also has no chemistry whatsoever with anybody she appears on the screen with, making her scenes a slog to get through.
But this is Michael J. Fox’s film and he carries the bulk of it along with the same breezy energy that made those early films of his so easy to enjoy. The whole ‘greed is good’ ethic that epitomised the late ‘80s is in full flight here, giving the film a bit of a moral subtext which isn’t as heavy-handed as in other similarly themed movies from the era, such as Trading Places or Tom Cruise’s Cocktail, but is more noticeable with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, for a bit of comedic fluff The Secret of My Success has enough fun and frolics to pass the time inoffensively and is a nice reminder that Michael J. Fox wasn’t just Marty McFly or Alex Keaton back in the day. Don’t know how an audience under 25 will take to it, though.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★