A good example of a huge hit that’s quickly forgotten, The Secret of My Success is a fairly undistinguished 80’s office comedy that made coin mainly because of the presence of Michael J Fox. Post Back to the Future, Fox was an instant star, but leant away from the fantasy that made his name and towards variations on his Family Ties homeboy performance in Doc Hollywood or the darker Bright Lights, Big City. Veteran Herbert Ross’ film lands halfway between the two; this story of how a young man learns to succeed in business is fairly soft and sanitised, although the lack of any kind of grit offers a certain novelty now.
Brantley Foster (Fox) leaves his Kansas home and worried parents behind, then travels to Manhattan, where he struggles with a small, rat-infested apartment with a noisy love-making couple next door. Foster’s hopes of employment dry up, and he’s forced to go to his Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan) for work. Foster falls for Chisty Wills (Helen Slater), but not before he’s had sex with his Aunt Vera (Margaret Whitton) and a four way love-triangle results. Can Brantley Foster forget his aunt and find true happiness with Christy?
From the writers of self-determinist classic Top Gun, and with a greed-is-good moral that Gordon Gekko would approve of, The Secret of My Success is a Jekyll and Hyde story. Brantley creates an alter ego to allow him to work in the mail-room AND be an executive, and Ross plays up the farce as his protagonist is forced into ‘whoops! where’s my trousers!’ quick changes in the elevator. The protracted beach-house finale, in which Foster ends up in bed with his uncle, is crudely staged, and while the lack of slapstick is admirable, the lack of actual jokes isn’t. And what was it about Michael J Fox that made studio execs think incest? After travelling back in time to romance his own mother in Back to the Future, surely anything other than being seduced by his own aunt would be a better story here?
Fox has since proved himself to be an enduring and endearing figure, returning to the Manhattan swirl to some effect in The Good Wife, and his personable work in The Secret of My Success probably did the job required in cementing his stardom for a while. Slathered with some dull David Foster rawk music and without much details of business, morals or anything much, it’s a bland, corporate-headed confection that seemed underwhelming on release, and doesn’t seem that much better on Amazon Prime in the UK in 2021.