What looks like a child, walks like a child, acts like a child and talks like a game show host? The answer is that strange mutant breed of millionaire adolescent known as the child star, and "Life with Mikey" is set square in a universe populated with such grotesques, both in the nascent and the post-nascent stage.
Its unsentimental evocation of child as star, child as tyrant, child as font of bucks, and child as monster of the ego is its primary pleasure, particularly in a culture that pathologically sentimentalizes childhood. In fact it gives the movie its bracing sense of subversion as it follows a hustling child's talent agent -- Michael J. Fox -- as he tries to shepherd a young discovery into success in the lucrative TV commercial circuit. When he sees her spunk, her personality, her courage, he sees . . . $$$$$$$!
Of course no large commercial movie could be made with so hard an edge, so "Life with Mikey" pulls back and eventually goes soft. Its subtext becomes its text, and that's the usual dramatic arc of our touchy-feely decade -- you know, the one about dysfunctional people healing themselves and each other through love, and then becoming whole again. ZZZZZZZZZZZZ-zzzzzzz.
In truth, this plot works, particularly in the texture of the relationship between Fox and his discovery, a marvelous and poignant child actress named Christina Vidal, who manages to overcome the sentimentality with which her character has been conceived. She's offered as yet another Curly-Sue, one of those Damon Runyonesque wild girls of the streets who is tamed of her kleptomania by gobs of love. The film does contain the germ of a potent idea: that show business attracts incomplete people who yearn to find in the love of an audience the love they lack in private, and it does a convincing job in portraying these crippled souls and their yearning. But it soon squanders it as it goes for the goo.
One senses that writer Marc Lawrence, director James Lapine and possibly even star Fox aren't nearly as interested in the emotional mulch as they are in more savage matters. For that reason the one truly compelling and enduring character in the film is David Krumholtz's Barry Corman, a 12-year-old known as "The Cereal King" because he can smile with a mouth full of disintegrating, milk-drenched Corn Slag and beam satisfaction from his otherwise ratty little Roy-Cohn-on-a-bad-day eyes. He knows he's basically supporting Chapman & Chapman, Fox's foundering agency, and that knowledge plus his high earning capacity, has turned him into a brazen monster-child, imperious, oleaginous, self-important, preternaturally mature and not a little frightening. He's like the Tyrannosaurus in "Jurassic Park," a lizard king on a rampage, and he's very funny.
In a sense Fox is facing his own darker regions. Fox's Mikey Chapman is a former child star now fallen on hard times himself and turned into a seedy hustler at the margins of the business. Of course Fox himself was a wildly successful child star, and he's one of the few who has apparently managed to transfer that success more or less intact into adulthood. Fox is able to deploy his doubleness in the role adroitly -- that is, his essential decency and his essential slipperiness. There's something too facile and cute about Fox that one automatically suspects; it was the foundation of his Alex Keaton character, and it gets in the way when he tries to be "sincere," as in "Casualties of War." Yet the camera also responds to his essential decency and he's able to convince as he shifts from goniff to caring guy.
Yet try as it does, "Life with Mikey" can't quite leave the old formulas behind; it never breaks entirely free of the movie plague of treating children as baby angels and deriving endless cheesy gooses from close-ups of unformed faces dewy with mist or glycerin. I detested the shameless manipulation of the Fox-Vidal relationship particularly as they meet (she picks his pocket) and the surrender to conventionality of the ending. I suppose to wish that a commercial movie had had the guts to be an uncommercial movie is a fool's dream; but just once, wouldn't it be nice?
"Life With Mikey"
Starring Michael J. Fox and Christina Vidal
Directed by James Lapine
Released by Touchstone