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MOVIE REVIEWS : A Fox Steals the Show in Too-Cute 'Life'

June 04, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Life With Mikey," Michael J. Fox plays a former child TV star who peaked at 15 and now runs a third-rate kids' talent agency. It's a terrific piece of casting--maybe too terrific. The role fits Fox like a glove but perhaps at this point in his career he should be scouting for something less form-fitting.

Fox wasn't exactly a child star when he did "Family Ties" on television, but he was still young enough for audiences to mark his progress into adulthood. He's made it in the movies by essentially keeping his spunky kid's core intact; he's capable of real dramatic depths, as he demonstrated in "Casualties of War" and "Light of Day," but for the most part he's a whiz at playing adults as overgrown, manic tykes. His whirling, hot-footed energy links the games of childhood with the games of adulthood. With Fox at the center of your movie, life is one big playpen.

The main reason to see "Life With Mikey" (citywide) is for Fox's all-out performance--as familiar as it is by now. As Michael Chapman, he has the haggard look of an actor who played out his childhood on television without ever having played it out in his own life. He lives like a slob in his dumpy apartment and eats Froot Loops for breakfast; he watches taped reruns of his TV show--"Life With Mikey"--and stares at the kid on the screen in sodden disbelief. He winces when people recognize him on the street because the recognition only reinforces his own sense of worthlessness. By doggedly running the talent agency with his brother Ed (Nathan Lane) and their addled gum-popping secretary (Cyndi Lauper), Michael is, in a sense, trying to replay his childhood all over again but this time from the driver's seat.

The movie's adorableness quotient works its way into the red zone when 10-year-old Angie Vega (Christina Vidal) shows up as the answer to the agency's dreams. She first makes Michael's acquaintance by picking his pocket in the subway; when this foul-mouthed waif sweet-talks her way out of another picked pocket a short time later, Michael offers to represent her. She turns out to be a natural--and, because of her quasi-orphan status, she ends up sharing Michael's apartment too. We're meant to see their relationship as mutually enhancing: Angie, precocious, wised-up, discovers the joys of kid-dom in the process of teaching Michael how to be a caring adult.

This isn't quite as syrupy as it sounds because Vidal, who has never acted professionally before, isn't the twinkling twerp we've become accustomed to in these kid-o-ramas. Compared to, say, the moppet in "Curly Sue," she's practically Anna Magnani. But Angie's spunk is in the movie only to be sentimentalized, just as Michael's funk is the kind that gets dispelled with a wink and a smile. Fox and Vidal have a nice rapport: There's a funny moment when Michael pours milk onto his cereal and the curdled stuff comes plopping out of the carton while Angie looks on in saucer-eyed disbelief.

But "Life With Mikey" (rated PG for language and thematic elements) never breaks out of its sitcom confines. Director James Lapine and screenwriter Marc Wallace don't entirely want to break those confines; their ambition is to show how these people's lives mimic the sitcoms and commercials they work in. But this is not all that stunning a concept, and, anyway, it backfires. The "real" drama in this movie--like Angie reuniting with her father (Ruben Blades)--isn't on a much higher level than the soapy stuff. Life with Mikey merges with "Life With Mikey."

'Life With Mikey'

Michael J. Fox Michael Chapman

Christina Vidal Angie Vega

Nathan Lane Ed Chapman

Cyndi Lauper Geena Briganti

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Scott Rudin production. Director James Lapine. Producer Teri Schwartz. Screenplay by Marc Lawrence. Cinematographer Rob Hahn. Editor Robert Leighton. Costumes William Ivey Long. Music Alan Menken. Production design Adrienne Lobel. Art director Dennis Davenport. Set decorator Gordon Sim. Sound David Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (language and thematic elements).

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