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‘The Secret of My Success’ (PG-13)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 10, 1987

For Michael J. Fox, family ties are a way of life. So it's hardly a surprise that Brantley Foster, Fox's character in "The Secret of My Success," is a spiritual cousin to Alex Keaton, Fox's character in his sitcom hit. Both are slick, savvy and ambitious young men, full of schemes to get themselves to the top of the corporate ladder.

"Success," directed by the veteran Herbert Ross, is a throwback to light '50s romantic comedies of mistaken identities and double lives, with some obvious '80s edges (the avarice of big business and mutual marital infidelity). Foster, a heartland boy with a brand-new business degree and big-city dreams, goes to New York to prove himself, but finds a promised job eliminated by a corporate takeover. After a futile job search, Foster invokes his last option, calling on his decidedly distant Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan), who happens to head a multinational conglomerate.

Uncle gives nephew a job in the mail room, but his eyes remain on the board room. More savvy than the average mail sorter, he starts reading interoffice memos and notices the opportunities presented by bureaucratic disarray. Before you can say Dow Jones Industrials, he moves into an empty office, orders up supplies and a secretary and starts making risky executive decisions.

All this requires Foster to lead a double life, not just in attitude, but sartorially as well. Even Clark Kent has an easier time juggling identities (though his quick-change artistry isn't quite as funny).

Obviously, Foster must stay out of Uncle Howard's line of sight and still do a snow job on the other top executives (or "suits," as a fellow mail room worker calls them). But this plot is not just wacky, wacky -- there's also woo. While still a mailman and chauffeur, Foster is seduced in a pool (to the strains of "Jaws") by a vamp who turns out to be Auntie Vera (Margaret Whitton). Then he falls head under heels in love with a fellow exec, Christy Wills (Helen Slater), who's trying to end an affair with Uncle Howard.

Since Auntie continues to have the hots for Foster, as does Uncle for Christy, you just know that when that long weekend in the country comes around, the corporate comedy will take a back seat to the boudoir farce, though the finale actually revolves around another hostile takeover attempt. This being a movie, not real life, there's a (somewhat lame) happy ending.

Obviously, no new ground is being broken here, but director Ross keeps things humming in an endearingly old-fashioned way. As for Fox, it's not easy to believe he's a college grad -- but otherwise he's his usual genial, charming self in a role that requires no more than geniality and charm. (It is funny, of course, to see him try and sweep the taller Slater onto her feet in various love scenes.)

Slater, a genuinely beautiful actress whose character is a dour, workaholic Princess Di look-alike, never really comes alive. That's certainly not the problem with Whitton, who comes across as a thin, dark-haired Bette Midler, all manic sexuality and see-through smiles. Jordan is convincing as the debonair mogul, but less so as a romantic lead. All the supporting actors and actresses are competent but forgettable, which is more than can be said for the sound track by David Foster, strictly a punch-it-up-by-the-numbers effort in the "St. Elmo's Fire" vein.

Carlo DiPalma's cinematography is bright and workmanlike, but the visual evocation of New York is no match for his recent collaborations with Woody Allen, "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days." Then again, this is comedy, not art.

As for Brantley Foster, if "Success" succeeds, we'll undoubtedly be following his further adventures in the corporate jungle. Anybody for "Back to the Futures?"

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