Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights Big City 1In 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.

Bright Lights Big City 2Based 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.

Bright Lights Big City 3Meanwhile, 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.

Bright Lights Big City 4The 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.

Bright Lights Big City 5The 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.

Bright Lights Big City 6I 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.


6 thoughts on “Bright Lights, Big City

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  1. This is also the final film directed by James Bridges, who helmed such hits as The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy before his death in 1993.

  2. I was never crazy about this movie when it first came out but I rediscovered it years later and found that it has aged surprisingly well. Out of all the Michael J. Fox-goes-serious movies he did in the ’80s, this is the best, I think. I always felt that it was the East Coast answer to LESS THAN ZERO – ’80s Yuppies doing too much drugs and burning out. I know what you mean about it feeling a bit aimless and not much character development but I think that’s kinda the point. Has Fox’s character really learned much by the end of the movie? Probably not but it does seem like he’s come out on the other end of a very dark period and I felt that it ends on something of a cautiously optimistic note. Incidentally, the book is very good. I read it after seeing the movie recently and it is quite faithful.

  3. Hi there!
    I like your Blog (it’s super cool!) but I completely disagree with this review. I love this movie. The cast is amazing: Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, and especially Swoosie Kurtz, and the movie is a very honest movie. It talks about the dangerous road of drugs and depression. I have watch it many times and I always thought that it is an underrated movie! Greetings from Madrid / Antonia

  4. Take away the polished upper class suit-and-tie yuppie trappings, the porcelain-faced supermodels, the literary demi-monde, the cocaine, the downtown Manhattan New Wave club scene, and you essentially have the same existential “midnight of the soul/enlightened by dawn” critique at the heart of the gritty lower working class “Saturday Night Fever”….but with no central star-making performance like John Travolta, no gutsy Norman Wexler screenplay, and no brutally unforgiving Verazzano Bridge climax, “Bright Lights, Big City” could not and would not become the successive zietgeist blockbuster of the following 1980’s decade, as “Fever” was to the 1970’s.

    Channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up”, the book was the definitive document of it’s time, an incisive and unflattering x-ray into the fashionable ennui and empty East Coast social climbing of the materialistic Reagan years, Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero” being it’s apocalyptic West Coast counterpart, equally adapted by Hollywood into a mediocre and poorly received film version as well. “I was essentially writing a book about suicide, which eventually was misinterpreted as a guide to the glamourous life” stated author Jay McInerney, many years later.

    With a deeply troubled production history and fear on the part of MGM executives that the novel’s central character could never be seen by audiences as anything other than a haughty and unsympathetic figure, the casting choice of Micheal J. Fox doomed the film from the outset. A sweet and charming actor, he possessed none of the charismatic darkness, cynical complexity, intellectual gravitas, or anguished intensity required to pull off the role, and despite being surrounded by such illustrious cast members as John Houseman, Jason Robards, Diane Wiest, Swoozie Kurtz, and Francis Sternhagen, the movie was dead on arrival, even with director James Bridges’s attempt to be as scrupulously faithful to the book as possible. And despite Joy Division/New Order and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry on the soundtrack, no Bee Gees-style mania would follow either, proving a Brooklyn-set 1970’s coming-of-age B-movie was much less of a pop-cultural “disco” phenomena and much more of a timeless and not so easily duplicated masterwork than anyone could of ever realized at the time.

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