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.


The Lost Boys

February 25, 2011
Vampires by Schumacher

The Lost Boys is a film about the adventures of a group of teenage vampires, undead and footloose in a small California coastal resort town.

This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds: The setting is a good one, and the vampirism serves as a handy metaphor for the homelessness, drug addiction, or (to use the antiquated term) juvenile delinquency of many at-large young people.

Director Joel Schumacher may be aware of those possibilities, and he takes care to make his vampires look like regular kids. They resemble any group of troublemakers out for fun on a Saturday night on the boardwalk. Until they drink blood from wine bottles and sprout fangs and yellow contact lenses, anyway.

But Schumacher botches whatever intriguingly scary-seductive potential the concept has. The Lost Boys exists on an entirely superficial level, and Schumacher fills the movie with a lot of fast cutting and hip fashion, which is supposed to convince us the movie is stylish. Actually, it’s just so much noise. (It’s the same approach he took with his previous film, St. Elmo’s Fire, which was a lot more unintentionally scary than this thing.)

We enter the town of Santa Carlos through the eyes of two brothers (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) who move there with their mother (recent Oscar winner Dianne Wiest). The town is known as “The Murder Capital of the World,” and there are strange disappearances going on constantly.

The older brother, Patric, catches the eye of a local hot number (Jami Gertz), but she turns out to be one of the bloodsuckers, and leads him into the circle of motorcycle-riding vampires.

The leader of the pack is a bleached-blond tough (Kiefer Sutherland, also on current view in Crazy Moon). He holds nocturnal meetings in an underground cavern dominated by a huge poster of Jim Morrison, featuring a wine cellar that has only one vintage, the full-bodied red. It’s up to little brother Haim to rescue his sibling.

Only Sutherland captures a sense of stylization in his performance—he at least seems genuinely haunted—and suggest what the movie might have been had it adopted a spookier tone. Anyone who’s ever walked along a lonely boardwalk at night knows that the resort setting, with its seediness and sense of transience, might have made a terrifically atmospheric locale. Somehow The Lost Boys never quite finds that.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

When Kiefer Sutherland is my favorite performer in anything, something is wrong. Also, I think I was too young when I wrote this to use the word “troublemakers”; that’s off-limits until one turns 55. The spur to dig up this review comes from just having watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, a direct-to-video offering I reviewed for It returns Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, who played the Frog brothers in the original film (and who I did not deign to mention in this ’87 review), to their roles—and actually, the sequel has a fairly shrewd appreciation of its low-budget purpose in life; it also contains a few clips of Corey Haim from the first movie, acknowledging his (and his character’s) death through plot developments. Joel Schumacher, of course, would go on and on.