When contemporary movie critics speak of Touchstone Pictures, they are not only referring to a company but evoking a veritable genre.
Touchstone is the Walt Disney film corporation re-jigged for the '80s and '90s, offering family entertainment but in a slick, modern, sometimes topical context.
Bette Midler successes such as Outrageous Fortune (1987) or Allan Moyle's underrated The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag (1992) capture the Touchstone formula perfectly: laughs and tears, thrills and lifestyle jokes, a passing acknowledgement of social problems like family breakdown or homelessness – but all delivered with the lightest, cutest touch possible.
In fact, many of the Touchstone pictures offer entertainment which is so light and ephemeral that it is easy to overlook the skill that goes into them.
If this neo-Disney formula constitutes a minor art form, then James Lapine (director of the cult film Impromptu ) is perhaps its finest artist to date. Life with Mikey is an absolutely charming comedy which juggles its generic ingredients perfectly.
Michael J. Fox plays a flaky showbiz promoter whose distant claim to fame is that, as a child, he once starred on the TV sitcom Life with Mikey. In most respects he is still a child: messy, narcissistic, irresponsible. His dependable brother Ed (Nathan Lane) is about to close down their agency for child performers when into their lives comes Angie (Christina Vidal) – a sassy, streetwise kid with a talent for pickpocketing and acting.
Between parodies of TV commercials and numerous, sidesplitting scenes of children's auditions, Mikey and Angie strike up a turbulent but poignant friendship.
Fox is a brilliant comic actor unable to find his niche in movies outside the Back to the Future series. Like Michael Keaton, he projects a smug, egocentric, WASP-ish persona, fast-talking and defensive.
The typical Fox vehicle is one that brings this persona into contact with a radically different social milieu – black, working class, Hispanic, criminal, whatever – and records the gradual transformation in his character from insularity to the ability to accept an Other.
Few films have delivered this peculiarly American fairy tale with as much panache as Life with Mikey (scripted by Marc Lawrence). And it contains one visual gag which, even as I remember it a decade later, cracks me up: the 'reveal' on the sympathetic movements of Fox as he listens to a rap performer.
© Adrian Martin June 1994