by Patrick Bromley
It's simple science fact that Michael J. Fox is the best. As Alex P. Keaton, he gave life to one of the greatest television characters of all time. As Marty McFly, he starred in the Best Movie Ever Made. As the founder of the Michael J. Fox foundation, he has dedicated countless hours and dollars to finding a cure for Parkinson's disease. He's about as likable and ingratiating a screen presence as Canada has ever produced, never trying too hard to win us over or begging for our approval. He just has it by virtue of being the best.
The Secret of My Success is a testament to Michael J. Fox power as a movie star. Despite being an otherwise generic '80s comedy -- albeit an unusually horny one -- the film was the number one movie in the country for an astonishing five weeks and went on to gross $111 million to become the seventh highest-grossing movie of 1987. Fox is just so darn winning, though, and audiences were so enamored with him in the wake of Back to the Future's popularity, that he was able to turn Secret into a huge success. He stars as Brantley Foster, the whitest name ever, a Kansas farmboy who moves to New York City with dreams of making big in the business world. Door after door is slammed in his face, though, leading him to grovel for a job from his Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan), the CEO of the Pemrose Corporation, who gives Brantley a starter job in the mailroom. Using the knowledge he gains from reading corporate memos, Brantley invents a new employee -- Carlton Whitfield -- who becomes the rising star at Pemrose and catches the eye of Christy Willis (Helen Slater), another top-level executive at the company. Brantley has to juggle two jobs, two identities, and two women: Christy and his aunt Vera (Margaret Whitton).
Part boardroom comedy, part bedroom farce, The Secret of My Success is such a product of its time that it's amazing it manages to work at all in 2020. It's obsession with sex seems in direct response to puritanical Reaganism, while all the stuff about climbing the corporate latter is perfectly in keeping with the '80s as laid out by Gordon Gekko. It's a dirtier version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in which a character scams his way to the top but it's justified because, like, he really wants to make it in New York City. I say dirtier because this is a movie in which Michael J. Fox continues to have sex with his aunt even after finding out she's his aunt. It's a movie in which every scene in his apartment is interrupted by the sounds of loud fucking next door. It's preoccupied with sex in a way that has very little to do with the larger story. For years, the only thing I remembered about it (despite having seen it a handful of times) was that Michael J. Fox sleeps with a family member.
Had it leaned harder into that kind of outrageousness, The Secret of My Success might stand out more among the filmographies of both Fox and director Herbert Ross (a filmmaker with no shortage of memorable titles on his resume). Instead, the movie is constrained by the PG-13 rating and Fox's "nice guy" image of the time -- he was still in the middle of his run as both Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton, and America wasn't yet ready for his "dark" period. Instead, we get a perfectly serviceable comedy that manages to straddle a couple of different subgenres, committing much harder to the one that interests me less. This is never going to be my favorite Michael J. Fox movie, but the fact that it works at all is entirely due to his participation.
111 minutes/1987/PG-131.85:1 (1080p)
DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Blu-ray Bonus Features:
Audio Commentary by Entertainment Journalist and Author Bryan Reesman
Helen Slater Interview