Saturday, February 16, 2019

Neglected Gem: Life with Mikey (1993)

Nathan Lane, Christina Vidal and Michael J. Fox in Life with Mikey (1993).

Life with Mikey was director James Lapine’s second movie, released two years after Impromptu, a high-toned 1991 farce with a dream cast that included Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and Emma Thompson. Lapine was previously known as a prominent Broadway director and librettist, who had collaborated with both Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and William Finn (Falsettos). Impromptu was well-received, although it didn’t set the box office afire. Life with Mikey’s budget was a third of what Impromptu cost, yet it grossed more than three times more as much as that first film. That would seem to qualify it as a success, yet Lapine has never made another film. (He did direct an adaptation of novelist Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions for HBO in 1999.)

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Life with Mikey a “gem.” (All right, more than a bit.) The screenplay, by journeyman Marc Lawrence, who’s written some movies I’ve liked (Music and Lyrics) and many I haven’t (Miss Congeniality, the remake of The Out of Towners), is sitcom fodder glazed with an almost opaque sentimentality, featuring a pot-holed plot that strains credulity. But the movie has lingered in my memory since I first saw it, due to the perfect casting of Michael J. Fox in the title role and the generous, quirky milieu that surrounds him.

Fox plays Mikey Chapman, once a child star on a hit sitcom (paralleling Fox’s own breakout role on Family Ties), but now an adult has-been who runs a children’s talent agency with his brother Ed (Nathan Lane). Mikey and Ed apparently say yes to any kid who auditions for them, so they’re surrounded by a marvelous, motley collection of show-biz nerds and misfits, most of whom have no hope of ever getting industry jobs. As a result, there’s only one client bringing in any money. “Cereal king” Barry Corman, a fixture of breakfast cereal commercials, is played by the young David Krumholtz, hilarious beyond his years as a spoiled, entitled brat, peeling a few bills off his wad as he orders his harried, terrified mother (Kathryn Grody) to go get him lunch and to get herself “a little something.”

Among all the chaos of a failed acting career and a failing talent agency, Fox’s Mikey is very much at home. When we first see him, he’s playing a street hockey with a bunch of neighborhood boys, and he has an easy, joshing manner with them. When an errant puck strikes a tough guy’s car, Mikey’s able to trade on his faint celebrity to get out of trouble, unashamedly quoting his clunky catch phrase from the show, “Any chance of getting time off for good behavior?” Mikey is completely comfortable in what should be degrading circumstances. When he’s called a has-been, it has no sting; he celebrates his fallen status. He doesn’t appear to be much of a grown-up, and it’s his more settled brother who has to worry about the firm’s fading finances. Mikey listens to his brother’s concerns but pays no heed, certain something will turn up. (We’ve seen Lane’s prissy exasperation elsewhere, but he’s pretty expert at it.)

But it’s Mikey’s rapport with his geeky coterie of show-biz tykes that makes everyone, including the audience, tolerate his irresponsibility. He doesn’t condescend to the little oddities: he accepts them at their own level, as people. There are some things he won’t stand for, refusing, for example, to capitulate to the cereal king’s extortion when he threatens to go to a rival agency. But no matter how untalented and unemployable his clients and prospective clients might be, you can sense his affection for his ragtag brood. Fox uses his sitcom technique honed over many years to make quick shifts and get laughs, but he’s also able to tap into something deeper. When Mikey watches reruns of his old sitcom, there’s no self-pity, just regret for a time that’s past. He may be a fast-talking hustler, but he also possesses a sane, clear-eyed view of himself and genuine compassion for the kids in his charge. It’s a lovely performance.

The film itself is most successful in the margins. In the small role of the firm’s receptionist and occasional audition accompanist, Cyndi Lauper has a raw, off-kilter charm. And you end up falling for all the kids. Audition montages are sure-fire in movies, and this one has three. The clients try out their acts for Mikey and Ed and they’re mostly terrible, but these wannabes are such earnest losers – baby Ethel Mermans who can’t sing on-key, magicians whose tricks always fail, jugglers who can’t keep their juggled items aloft, one morose kid who does Strindberg monologues – that you can’t help but love them. And the damnedest people show up in cameos, most of them Broadway friends of Lapine’s: Victor Garber, Christine Baranski, Stephen Bogardus, Heather MacRae, William Finn, Mandy Patinkin, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Aida Turturro, Dylan Baker, Kate Burton, an uncredited Ruben Blades, and, as a decidedly un-jolly Santa Claus, the playwright Christopher Durang. Marc Shaiman, the composer of Hairspray and Mary Poppins Returns, serves as the music supervisor and Alan Mencken, taking a break from his duties reviving Disney’s animation house, wrote the score as well as a very pretty song to lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, sung by Jennifer Warnes: “Cold Enough to Snow.”

The plot, however, involves Mikey “meeting cute” with 10-year-old pickpocket Angie (Christina Vidal) who can talk her way out of a jam by telling false sob stories. Mikey sees the hold she has on bystanders and offers to represent her then and there. Complications and cheap emotion ensue. This wouldn’t be terrible if Vidal were any good, but she’s not, and unlike any of the other young actors (especially Krumholtz), her sassy precocity wears thin almost instantly. Ironically, it’s one of those bad performances typical of a child sitcom actor, and it’s at the center of the film, a giant drag on the proceedings. (The film would have been vastly improved if Krumholtz had played the pickpocket.)

But despite this admittedly major flaw, the film’s set-up and atmosphere are small triumphs, and Fox’s facility with Mikey’s hucksterism, the gentle irony with which he views his past success, and the affinity he has for his current charges made me glad I returned to this movie I hadn’t seen for 26 years.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

1 comment:

  1. So, I've watched about 3/4 of Life with Mikey. It's not as bad as I was afraid it might be. Generally pleasant, occasionally funny. I think I agree that Christina Vidal isn't that good, but it occurred to me that the part isn't written very coherently. Sometimes she's a little street-savvy sociopathic thief, sometimes she's a preachy anti-smoker...etc. Could be difficult for a young actor to find the core pulling those contradictory qualities together and maybe didn't get enough guidance from the director.

    Michael J. Fox is always an attractive screen presence, but I thought he was better-used in The Hard Way. Also not a great movie, but better than Life with Mikey, imo.