Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Zeitgeist of the 80s

Review: The Secret of My Succe$s with Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, and Richard Jordan

Remember the 80s? Those of you who were alive and aware then recall a time when the question wasn’t “will I ever find a job?” but “how fast can I get promoted?” Distilling the cream from the corporate life was a strong theme in the 80s—and since this was when I began my own checkered career, it resonates strongly with me.

Michael J. Fox was the poster child of those years. With movies like The Secret of My Succe$s, For Love or Money, and Doc Hollywood, Fox seemed to capture the image of the naive newcomer to the corporate ladder, yearning for the big score, but wanting to do it right. Playing off his highly-successful TV role as the conservative son of two ex-hippies in Family Ties, Fox caught the Zeitgeist of an era, and spun it well into the 90s.

Although all three of these movies share some of the 80s spirit, none is so evocative of the time as 1987’s The Secret of My Succe$s, whose tag-line was “There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Brantley Foster took two weeks.” Fox’s Brantley Foster is a college graduate with a fire in his belly, come to make it big in the big city. There he runs into the barriers a farm-boy might have anticipated.

Brantley Foster: No! No exceptions! I want this job, I need it, I can do it. Everywhere I’ve been today there’s always been something wrong, too young, too old, too short, too tall. Whatever the exception is, I can fix it. I can be older, I can be taller, I can be anything!

Interviewer: Can you be a minority woman?

Desperate, he finally asks his uncle, CEO of a large organization, for a job. Working the mailroom wasn’t what he envisioned in his years of college, but he can always work up from there, right? But “you can’t get promoted out of the mailroom—you can’t even get paroled out of the mailroom,” according to the laconic Fred, his mentor at the bottom of the ladder.

The fun starts when Foster, delivering mail, walks into a newly-emptied office and answers a ringing phone. A frantic voice at the other asks for help, and Foster provides it. He’s hooked—he may be paid as a mail clerk, but he’ll do the job he’s trained for, despite them all. The result of this resolution is a wild scramble as Foster assumes a second identity. He will become “Carleton Whitfield,” a suit-wearing executive in “the lofty air of the big cheeses.” Using the knowledge he has gleaned by reading the executive memos and corporate reports before he delivers them, Foster fleshes out his alter ego by creating orders for business cards, his name on the door, and an assistant from the secretarial pool.

The bedroom-chase farce that results from Foster’s need to dress for success whenever he’s masquerading as Carleton Whitfield, but dress down to allay the suspicions of his eagle-eyed mailroom supervisor, is simply hilarious. As his secretary, Jean, says, “I was having fun on this job! You had all this energy, and all these crazy ideas… and you kept taking your pants off.”

The sexual side of things is just as confused, for the same reasons. As “Brantley Foster,” he is assigned to drive an executive’s wife home. They wind up in the sack together before Brantley finds out that she is his uncle’s wife. Fortunately, the sexually aggressive “Auntie Vera” Prescott decides to help Foster up the corporate ladder while she helps herself to his boyish charm. Meanwhile, as “Carleton Whitfield,” Foster has become enamoured of a lovely corporate penny-pincher, Christy Wills—who just happens to be sleeping with his uncle. Coupled with the dual identity Foster is sustaining—which his aunt and uncle know nothing about—this results in a real French bedroom chase near the climax of the movie.

Howard Prescott: Let me get this straight – Brantley is Whitfield?

Brantley Foster: That’s right. Brantley is Whitfield; Whitfield is Brantley.

Vera Prescott: And Christy is the bimbo! Well, now that we’ve all had Mouseketeer roll call, I’m just going to go call my lawyer.

Howard Prescott: [obviously lying] No, wait a minute. Christy is not the bimbo I was screwing around with at the office.

Christy Wills: People better stop calling me bimbo!

This movie is decidedly sweet. Even the hostile takeover—complete with the usually-genial Fred Gwynn in what amounts to a cameo as the “evil investor”—is un-bitter, and merely serves as a springboard for the irrepressible Foster to triumph.

There were real corporate issues in the 80s, and truly hostile takeovers in an era which added terms like “poison pill” and “greenmail” to the language. If you want a glimpse of them, I could suggest Barbarians at the Gate. But for the nostalgic charm of the corporate climb, devoid of the need to do anything but sit back and enjoy, I’d rather recommend this charming comedy.

I guarantee you’ll sleep better afterward.