Revisiting Childhood Movies Part III
- Director: Herbert Ross
- Writer: Jim Cash / Jack Epps Jr. / AJ Carothers
- Producer: Herbert Ross
- Stars: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, Richard Jordan, Margaret Whitton
- Studio: Universal
- Award Nominations: Golden Globe (Best Original Song)
- Length: 111 min
- Genre: Comedy (wanna be Screwball)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13
- Release Date: 10 April 1987
- Box Office Gross: $66.99 mil (#7 – 1987)
- Ebert Rating: *.5
- My Rating: **.5
- My Rank: #76 (year)
- Nighthawk Nominations: none
- Nighthawk Notable: Best Guilty Pleasure
- First Watched: in theaters, opening day with Cody
- Number of Times Watched as a Kid: @7 or 8
Some of my movie choices were not great as a kid. I enjoyed The Secret of My Success when I saw it as a kid and I enjoyed parts of it watching it this past week. That’s not what I’m talking about. But when I saw it on opening day (or sometime around there), my friend Cody and I then snuck into another film, which was Police Academy IV: Back in Training, and since I had never seen any of the previous Police Academy films and since it was awful, I can’t imagine what possessed me to do that. Maybe it was Cody’s idea.
Though, looking back, The Secret of My Success was not that great of an idea either. Like I said, I still enjoyed parts of it watching it for what was probably the first time in 20 years. It is a reminder of a time when Michael J. Fox was poised to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He was, by this point, at the height of his popularity on “Family Ties”, one of the better sitcoms of the 80’s. He was in the middle of an Emmy streak (three straight years) and the Ellen episode in Season 4 had been such an overwhelming success that Fox went on to marry his co-star (a rare acting marriage that has lasted) and the episode prompted Billy Vera’s little known 1981 single “At This Moment” to be re-issued and rise all the way to #1 on Billboard (I have it, and if you’re my age and you don’t have it, you at least know it). And in 1985 his first big film role, Back to the Future had been a phenomenal success (if you weren’t around in1985 this is how big it was – not only did I see it three times – the only non-Star Wars film I saw more than once prior to 1989, but it made more money than any film released in 1985. Or 1986. Or 1987. Or 1988). Aside from Teen Wolf, which had kind of slid under the radar (literally – it got released while Back to the Future was still on top of the box office charts and never passed it, though it meant that for four straight weeks in August and September of 1985 that Michael J. Fox not only had the #1 film, he also had the #2 film. Then there was more “Family Ties” before Fox came back with The Secret of My Success. Although, actually before Success, there was Light of Day. That film, coupled with Bright Lights Big City and Casualties of War, while they showed Fox’s acting ability, showed that he wasn’t really headed for big film success and after making the other two Back to the Future films back-to-back his days as a film star were pretty much gone and he settled into character acting and becoming a huge tv star again, starring in “Spin City” until his illness got to be too much for him to be a full-time television star.
So, that’s a roundabout way of saying that if you weren’t around you don’t know how big a star Fox was and how this was a big film at the time (it ended up in the Top 10 for the year, making more money than Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing or Predator). So I headed off to see it and I rather enjoyed it. Actually, I really enjoyed it. It was a comedy that was fun and funny and it had some sex in it and that was rare for a 12 year to see. I think it’s the first time I ever heard the term “got laid” (in an amusing scene where Fox is walking into work with his friend and has the following exchange: “I got chased by a savage dog. And that was the best part of my day.” “What was the worst part?” “I got laid.” “Kid, I’m not sure you’ve got your priorities straight.”). Fox comes to New York City from Kansas to succeed but after the business where his job is lined up with goes under he is forced to beg his way through interviews until a distant relation (he’s constantly called his “uncle” even by Fox, but really he’s a distant relation) gives him a job in the mailroom of his successful company. But, through circumstances (that are not believable for a second) he also ends up moonlighting as an executive after he is mistaken for one. Before long he is romancing two women – one of them his “aunt”, played with some cougar sexiness by Margaret Whitton (you know – the owner in Major League), the other one the cold, smart blonde in the office who is also seeing his uncle. She’s played by Helen Slater, who it turns out is not related to Christian Slater, which means I’ve been passing on an urban legend or at least a misconception for something like 25 years. Slater doesn’t really have much to do in the film except look good, which she does at times, and wear 80’s office outfits, which means shoulder pads. Whitton at least gets to have some great comic moments, starting with her seduction scene, carrying through to a couple of more attempted seductions. But, aside from Fox, who is endlessly likable and has great comic timing, the real treat in the cast is Richard Jordan. Jordan never did enough acting work, but in films like this and The Hunt for Red October he was suitably slimy and he was always fun to watch. In this film he’s like a lesser version of Gordon Gecko, though a few months earlier and less successful. Because part of the plot revolves around the fact that the successful company, like many 80’s companies, is leveraged to the hilt and about to be boarded in a corporate takeover (I’d like to imagine Terry Gilliam would know how to stage the takeover much better than the one here).
There are things about this film that are done right. Though the script is never believable, it is fun and has some very enjoyable moments, including a wonderful chase scene in the middle of the office building after Fox’s boss in the mailroom is trying to catch him not being a mailroom employee. There is also a fantastic game of trading beds where the four main characters, all together in a country house for the weekend, are up in the middle of the night, going after each other. It ends with the absolute wrong two people in bed and has a great confrontation scene. But unfortunately that’s all undone by the final scene which is even less believable than anything previously in the script and staged really badly. In fact, while parts of the script are right and three of the four actors are quite enjoyable (and the fourth really has no role other than to be eye candy and she does that at times), it’s the direction that continually gets in the way. Herbert Ross was never a particularly good director – his best films, by far, are when he was provided with first-rate scripts (from Neil Simon and once from Woody Allen). But everything he tries to stage in this film seems to go wrong. Aside from the chase scene the only two really well directed scenes in the film are the bed switching and an earlier scene where Whitton is starting to apply her charms to Fox while he drives her home in a company car. Both of those scenes are accompanied by the Yello song “Oh Yeah”. That would be a bit of comic genius if not for one thing – it had already been used to great effect just the year before in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a much better film. So what are still two very fun scenes lose a lot of their impact and all of their originality.
So what are we left with? A film that has aged pretty badly (Veronica, who had only seen the film once before, was quite amused by the eighties hair and outfits). A film that probably wasn’t all that great to begin with and that I enjoyed more because I was 12 than because it was good. But a film that still has a few moments that make it memorable. Which, I guess, translates into a high **.5. Which, in 1987, puts it at #76, right between Dirty Dancing and The Lost Boys.