Bright Lights, Big City

April 19, 2012

The hero of Bright Lights, Big City spends a lot of time looking into mirrors. Half the time he’s desperately trying to see if he’s still there. The rest of the time, he’s using a mirror to avail himself of a few snorts of cocaine, the drug that fuels his melancholic tailspin.

This fellow is instantly recognizable as the nameless protagonist of Jay McInerney’s bestseller, a novel that deftly charted the void of the New York City night scene. Here McInerney’s hero has a name, Jamie Conway, and is played by Michael J. Fox.

Now, Michael J. Fox is so clean-cut, you have to wonder if he isn’t the only actor around who doesn’t get regularly brain-dead on cocaine. Still, this bit of anti-typecasting has the benefit of making Conway a more instantly likable character than might otherwise have been the case.

McInerney’s book (very faithfully adapted by the author himself) takes Jamie through a few days at rock bottom. Jamie’s wife (Phoebe Cates), a fashion model, has just walked out on their marriage. He’s blowing his job at a New York magazine, where he works as a fact-checker. And he can’t help but drown his sorrows in “Bolivian Marching Powder” (coke), double vodkas, and wee-hour nightclubbing with his decadent friend, Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland).

Jamie also can’t make any headway on the novel that he’s hoping will turn him into the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s haunted by the death of his mother (Dianne Wiest, in flashback) a year ago. All in all, the bright lights have gotten dark.

As directed by James Bridges (Urban Cowboy) and photographed by Gordon Willis, Bright Lights, Big City retains many of McInerney’s literary devices, including the second-person narration and the symbolic presence of the continuing newspaper accounts of the Coma Baby. But, although some of the opening scenes have promise, Bridges manages to make the material oddly unenthralling.

The movie, unlike the book, seems as superficial as the scene it is describing. Bridges skims the surface, and many of the novel’s big moments—Jamie’s foolish bluster at his wife’s fashion show, or his date with a woman (Tracy Pollan) who promises a safe port—are lost without the literary language.

This means that much of the weight is on Fox’s shoulders, particularly in the scene in which he drunkenly bares his soul to a sympathetic workmate (Swoosie Kurtz).

While Fox (who is appreciably better here than in his previous “serious” role in Light of Day) does his darnedest to appear self-destructive, there is still something lightweight about his presence. He gives a solid performance, yet there seems an inauthenticity in his despair.

This film might have been more interesting all the way around if it had been helmed by its original director. Joyce Chopra, who made the intense, intriguing Smooth Talk a few years ago, was directing this film into the first couple of weeks of shooting, but parted company at that point. Bridges was imported, presumably to provide a professional’s steady hand at the wheel. Bright Lights, Big City is steady, and it’s nothing if not earnest. But it needs a bit more of its protagonist’s recklessness.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

It felt like a real misfire. The book’s popularity made McInerney a target, although it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for him. The novel is good, and Darkness Falls is even better.