Another night, another conquest for Alex (Rob Lowe) who wakes up early with the woman he has spent time with still asleep as he goes through her things and picks out any material that is connected to him, such as photographs that feature his image. Then he leaves without rousing her, and dumps the bag in the garbage where it will never be found as he moves on to his next project who happens to be Michael Boll (James Spader), who he notices getting hassled in a bar after buying a lady a drink. Alex leaps to the rescue, but walks away before Michael has a chance to thank him; this potential victim is in need of guidance anyway, as he is stepped on at work and feels forced into a marriage he’s not ready for – can Alex assist?
Yuppies were having a hard time of it in the movies during the nineteen-eighties and to some extent, into the nineties as well, perhaps a way of allowing the rest of us non-yuppies a way of satisfying our ill-feeling towards them after they profited mightily from exploiting the masses, then managed to cause a stock market crash which frankly was no help. But in many of these efforts, we were supposed to lean towards a sympathy for this subset of society as they saw their carefully amassed wealth and privilege threatened by what amounted to a complete psychopath inviting themselves into their insular world and proceeding to turn it upside down, often with a dose of murder to add menacing flavour.
If anyone was born to play a yuppie it was James Spader, so while Bad Influence could have easily been made with the two leading men’s roles reversed and he was the antagonist, at least this casting was fair enough as Lowe capitalised on his new bad boy status after a sex tape he “starred” in was leaked to the media about the same time this was being made. Was it coincidence that the script also featured a sex tape as a vital part of the plot, or videocassette footage at any rate? Whatever, it was handy for publicity reasons and generated some interest, enough to craft a modest hit, but watching it decades later this aspect tended to fix the plot in a specific point in time rather than lend it an enduring relevance.
That was the case with most of its contemporaries in this style, fine for the nostalgic but all those sleek surfaces and power games in and out of the office spoke to a different set of values than had become fashionable, especially after the financial sector which Michael works for and wishes to do very well in became responsible for even bigger crimes as far as exploiting ordinary folks out of their savings went. And yet, this doesn’t quite do enough to encourage you to back Alex in their battle of wills because he is plainly cut from the same cloth, a conman with a predilection for ruining the lives of those he picks out as prey, if anything his personality fitted better with the direction the world was traveling towards than the supposedly heroic young businessman Michael represented.
And even he was weak-willed until Alex bolsters his confidence by proving he can stand up to people, he doesn’t need to get married, he doesn’t need to be second best at work, he can be a success, dammit. This played out in various high concept locations, whether it be the impressive offices, the swanky apartments, the exclusive nightclubs where they play only the most rarefied music, with short jaunts to mix with the little people and remind them they are indeed the little people compared to those with the cash. Needless to say, from what we can work out at all from Alex’s machinations he takes as much pleasure in this lifestyle as he does the manipulation of everyone around him, which escalates to violent lengths all the better to place Michael in hot water. Unfortunately, with nobody to particularly feel invested in as pretty much everyone aside from the two main characters were strictly two-dimensional, Bad Influence was a mediocre experience more interesting for its sociological reveals than its very well-worn thrills, emptily handled by then-rising director Curtis Hanson. Music by Trevor Jones.