Moving Pictures
May 15, 2023, 06:27AM

Better Day

Still doesn’t sugarcoat Michael J. Fox's difficulties, but it does manage to stay hopeful.

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Many people know the highlights of Michael J. Fox's career. He rose to fame in the 1980s as conservative teenager Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, before becoming a movie star with the Back to the Future films in the later part of that decade. In the late-1990s, he revealed his diagnosis years earlier with Parkinson's Disease. Recently, he's been best known as a Parkinson's activist, while also taking occasional acting roles in which he plays characters with a condition similar to his own.

A new documentary about Fox, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, is a probing look at this beloved actor, which is inventive.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, and has directed docs about Bill Gates and Malala Yousafzai. The film had a festival run—I saw it when it closed out the PFS Springfest in Philadelphia last month—and is on Apple TV+ and at some theaters.

The doc features on-camera interviews with Fox (61), often shown struggling with Parkinson's symptoms that have grown more challenging over time. He discusses his disease, while also telling the story of his career. In a very short period of time he went from an undersized high school actor in Canada into a multi-year run as one of the biggest stars in the world.

Guggenheim uses a novel concept that was risky, but pays off. He tells the story by including clips from Fox's various movies and TV shows, that comment on what's going on at that time in the narrative. It works, mostly because the filmmakers were able to get just about every relevant bit of footage.

There are great stories about how Fox filmed Family Ties and the first Back to the Future simultaneously, working 18-hour days for months. And we're reminded what a brilliant concept Gary David Goldberg's Family Ties had—an inversion of All in the Family, in which the parents were overgrown flower children, and their son was the money-obsessed Reaganite.

Fox also explains how depression, combined with the Parkinson's diagnosis, led him to a string of flops in the early-1990s that essentially meant the end of his career as a movie star. He tells how he worked to conceal his condition on the sets of various movies and shows. Most of his work in the last 25 years has been in television, although between Family Ties, Spin City, and his memorable guest spot on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Fox is one of the greatest sitcom actors, before and after his diagnosis.

This is now a mini-genre, in which young actors of the 1980s reflect on their stories in contemporary documentaries. There was Kid 90, directed by Soleil Moon Frye (Punky Brewster) in 2021, this year's Pretty Baby, about Brooke Shields, and now the Fox film. Like in the Shields film, we see Fox with his kids, and despite his challenges, he appears to have a stable and happy family life, still married to Tracy Pollan, who he met when she played his girlfriend on Family Ties. Still doesn’t sugarcoat what Fox is facing these days, but it nevertheless strikes a tone of positivity.


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