In the mid 80’s if you happened to be Michael J. Fox, things were pretty good. On television Fox had a ratings champ with his series Family Ties. He was also burning up the box office with big screen hits like Back to the Future, Teen Wolf, and The Secret of my Success. But every now and then there was a misstep. Which brings us to the year 1988 and the film Bright Lights, Big City.
Based on the novel by James McInerney (who also wrote the screenplay), the film centers on Jamie Conway (Fox). By day Jamie is a fact-checker at a renowned New York magazine. Jamie hopes to one day write for the magazine, but he’s stuck back in research for the time being. By night, Jamie hits the New York party scene. This includes partaking in copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Jamie is encouraged in this behavior by his partying pal Tad (Kiefer Sutherland). The problem is, this partying lifestyle makes Jamie chronically late and behind in his work…much to the frustration of his stuffy boss (Frances Sternhagen). His adoring co-worker Megan (Swoosie Kurtz) does her best to cover for him, but it’s getting harder by the day.
Meanwhile, the continued drug use fuels Jamie’s depression over the fact that his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) has recently left him. Early in their marriage she was a supportive wife, but then she just happened into a modeling career (after all, she’s Phoebe freakin’ Cates) which has started to skyrocket. When she comes back to New York for fashion week, Jamie attempts to confront her during a runway show…making a complete fool of himself in the process. Also adding to the depression is Jamie’s struggle to deal with the recent death of his mother (Dianne Wiest) due to cancer. Meanwhile, he becomes obsessed with a news story about a pregnant woman in a coma and her “coma baby.” He even has a hallucination of a slightly Michael-J-Foxish looking fetus that talks to him. All this comes together to cause Jamie to continue to spiral into a drug-induced fog.
The novel this film is based on received all sorts of praise when it was released in 1984. You’d never know it from the film. Ultimately, I think my big problem was that the film just doesn’t go anywhere. From the beginning, Fox’s character is a coked up loser. As the film moves forward he just becomes more of a coked up loser. We’re never really given the chance to care about this guy because when our story begins he’s already got one foot in the grave. There are a few brief flashbacks which attempt to give us a glimpse of his life before he became and addict…but it’s just not enough. Had the film showed us his life gradually get to this point then I might have given a crap about the guy.
The story may not be very satisfying, but Fox still does a pretty solid job. Though I think he stays a bit too clean-cut through it all. Usually I’m a pretty big fan of Kiefer Sutherland’s, but I really didn’t care much for him here. He seems to just be borrowing from James Spader’s 80’s jerk playbook. I guess I expect a bit more out of Sutherland. The biggest crime of the movie, though, is completely wasting Phoebe Cates. Aside from the aforementioned flashbacks, she really only gets two other scenes…one, the runway scene, doesn’t even require her to speak. Showing a bit more of the relationship between Fox and Cates’ characters I think would’ve gone a long way towards making the viewer care more about these characters.
I have never read the novel that inspired this film, though people have told me it’s great. I would assume that since the author of the book wrote the screenplay that the film stays pretty faithful to the original story. However, the film really feels like it’s the last chapter of a larger story. Without whatever came before, that final chapter just isn’t that engaging. I suppose some books just aren’t meant for the screen. This could be one of them.