The Secret of My Success feels as if it was vomited whole from the 1980s to wreak havoc on civilization, wielding stereotypes and awful music and worse hair in some unstoppable barrage of consumerist stupidity meant to grind the viewer into submission. Released in 1987 — the year of Wall Street, Jaws the Revenge, Jim Bakker, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, and Baby Jessica, among other ignoble landmarks — The Secret of My Success cannot on any real level be called “good” in the way we usually use the word to mean something well-made or pleasing. But as a towering ode to the musical/sartorial missteps and corporate-driven culture of its era, the film is practically unparalleled. It’s like being brain-raped by Duran Duran. What’s more, it’s got Michael J. Fox running around in full-on boy-in-trouble mode, falling in love and trying to make something of himself in the most painfully stupid ways imaginable. Everything about the film is mostly dumb and predictable and almost painful to see 20 years after it was meant to be “enjoyed,” but it’s the strength of that time warp that makes it perfect low-impact viewing, comfort food for a quiet Saturday afternoon when you’re still shaking off the effects of Friday night.
Brantley Foster (Fox) is, as his name would suggest, a prototypical white boy who wants to leave the farm and his small town to climb the corporate ladder in New York. He arrives in the city just as his promised job is being eliminated thanks to economic cutbacks, leading to the first of many hilarious montages: He bounces from office to office, somehow managing to update his resume on the fly (the technology for this seems pretty advanced for late-1980s, but whatevs), and he eventually manages to land a job in the mailroom of the company run by his uncle, Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan, whom I will always remember as Jeffrey Pelt). Brantley’s mentor in the mailroom is Fred (John Pankow), fulfilling some arcane law of New York location shooting that John Pankow must be in at least half the scenes. But is Brantley satisfied with the mailroom job? Spoiler alert: Nope! And does he have a plan to break out and make it big? Spoiler alert: You bet your buttons!
It starts when Brantley is forced to give Howard’s wife, Vera (Margaret Whitton), a ride home one day. He winds up saying typically cutesy Michael J. Fox things that completely melt her:
The suspense isn’t in whether she’ll seduce him — she totally does — but then the screenplay from Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., and A.J. Carothers takes a hard left: Vera is Brantley’s aunt, which means he committed a pretty weird little act of incest that freaks him out and makes Vera just giggle like mad. It’s unnerving, but it serves two purposes: It gets Brantley on Vera’s radar, and it puts him that much closer to the world of the successful businessmen he wants to emulate.
Brantley wants nothing more than to succeed, but he’s also noticed and fallen in love with Christy Wills (Helen Slater), who has enormous glasses and shoulder pads and talks like a little kid would talk if they were pretending to be a grown-up. In other words, she’s everything Brantley could ever possibly see himself wanting in a woman, and he knows this because he doesn’t speak to her, just envision her in fantasies involving water fountains and a loooot of keyboard effects at sunset:
Bathe in that clip, people. Become it. Better yet, watch it again and keep reminding yourself that this is a real movie, and not a parody, and that it was the seventh-highest grosser the year it came out. Then go get a drink.
Now that you’re back, let’s keep going. Brantley wants to get ahead, and he realizes that the only thing to do is to take advantage of his company’s poor management and stifling bureaucracy to jump through legal loopholes and create a job for himself out of nothing. (It’s taking all I have not to go sliding into Reagan parallels here.) To that end, Brantley begins moving things like office supplies and a set of clothes into a spare office and christens himself Carlton Whitfield — no, the names never get any better — and begins sending memos and putting together plans for branch expansions throughout the Midwest. At this point the film takes a minute to celebrate Brantley’s awesomeness by doing something no other film will ever do: It unironically uses Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” in a montage. I kid you not:
From here on out, the film becomes a “comedy” of errors in that director Herbert Ross — whose credits range from The Goodbye Girl to Footloose, which almost makes my head hurt — requires Fox to do a lot of quick wardrobe changes as he goes back and forth between lives/personas as the mailboy and the young exec. He is, in the words of the Night Ranger (!) theme song, living 25 hours a day. Brantley as Carlton eventually hooks up with Christy, but it’s so lifeless and awkward and really, really horribly written that it’s tough to watch. And it only happens so that they can hit the rocks again later when, inevitably, he will have to reveal his true identity, motives, and lack of business acumen and hope to win her back by being his own true self. To make things more needlessly complicated, Christy has also been having an affair with Howard, which leads to a painfully unfunny sequence in which everyone is sleeping at Howard’s out in the country and trying to hook up with everyone else, hopping from bed to bed and slyly opening doors like this is a “Hee-Haw” sketch. And, just to remind everyone that this is indeed 1987, the film again uses Yello’s “Oh Yeah.” I wish so much that I was making this up, but I’m not:
Really, that’s most of what happens, or more than enough to give you the gist. There’s a whole plot about takeovers and whether Brantley/Carlton can come through and gamble and make his plan pay off, but point of watching a movie like this one isn’t to wonder if the hero will succeed (he will) or if he’ll get the girl (he does) or even if you’ll be able to get the theme music out of your head when it’s over (I’ve been trying for years). The Secret of My Success can only be enjoyed retroactively and on a completely superficial level, the one that keeps drawing you back to high school yearbooks even though you know the pictures will never look any better. It’s a dumb, rote, and completely earnest movie, and there’s a genuine sweetness in its stupidity. It’ll actually make you look forward to being hungover.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
The Secret of My Success / Daniel Carlson
Hangover Theater | September 9, 2008 | Comments ()