In the eighties, movies about the dynamics of the workplace were much more likely to put a positive spin on things. A movie like “Office Space,” probably wouldn’t have gotten much of an enthusiastic reception because the overall message of mainstream films was that one’s (white collar) job was a positive source of self-esteem and identity. Even if you were a kid in an adult’s body (“Big”) or a teenager trying to earn income to provide for her siblings while mom was away on a trip (“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”), finding success in an office job was possible – and it was even likely that if you began on the lowest rung, you’d have a shot at advancing to the point where you were on a first name basis with your boss by the end of the movie. It was also likely that if the boss was evil incarnate and planned to fire everyone, a bright, fresh-faced adorable movie star would show up and save everyone from destitution. (Or if he was a complete sexist pig, it was okay to kidnap him and teach him a lesson, as in “Nine to Five.”) Saving the company was the adult equivalent of getting a dream date to the prom or perhaps winning the big game. At least thirty years ago.
“Secret of My Success” follows this formula closely. In it, Michael J. Fox plays a young, motivated grad who gets a good business job in the Big City (to which he’s never been before) and after lining up the requisite rat hole apartment with the horny next-door neighbors, goes into his first day of work – only to discover that he no longer has a job due to a corporate takeover. So he hits the street, but unfortunately, runs into the conundrum of either having too much experience or not enough. At one interview, he decides to emphasis his flexibility (“Whatever you want, I can be it.”), but runs into a dead end when he’s asked if he can be a minority woman. Finally, in desperation, Michael goes to see his Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan) who is a CEO and who gives him a job – in the mailroom.
Michael surprisingly discovers that working in that department is not particularly good for making valuable connections, but there is a bright spot when he spies a woman (Helen Slater) sipping water slo-mo from a fountain, though she at first rebuffs his attempts to get to know her. Because Michael is driven and Has Dreams, he decides to seize the chance to masquerade as a new executive – by simply taking over a fired employee’s office. First, he has to find a name that’s even preppier than his own, Brantley Foster, and comes up with Carlton Whitfield. Carlton is accepted by his peers without major problems, although Michael discovers that being two places at once isn’t always easy. Also avoiding his uncle, who sometimes drops by unexpectedly, is awkward, but he keeps going.
Complications arise when Michael (in the mailroom worker guise) gets a chance to drive home his Aunt Vera (Margaret Whitton), who doesn’t recognize him and finding him sympathetic to her problems, treats him to a diatribe on how her marriage is falling apart. Michael, not recognizing who she is at first either, indulges in some poolside flirting, once they reach the home, but then it dawns on him. However, Margaret is more amused than horrified by the coincidence.
Eventually, Michael’s uncle realizes that his wife has a new flame, and suspecting that it’s this new guy, Carlton, invites Michael to a weekend company get together in order to keep Carlton away from his wife. This culminates in a scene where everything is revealed and things look grim both for Michael and the other employees in general – but then Michael comes up with a plan that saves the day – and the jobs. Because I was only old enough for a part time job when I saw the movie, I think part of me expected more happy endings/job security when I did get old enough to join the workforce. But to be honest, I found the office environment more like “Office Space,” complete with co-workers who quoted that movie. Still “The Secret of My Success” is fun to watch anyway.