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.

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Light of Day

February 3, 2012

Paul Schrader’s new film Light of Day presents a tangle of themes and possibilities: there’s the vitality of the rock ‘n’ roll bar scene, the emotional toll of a parent’s death, the anger of an irresponsible young unwed mother, the confusion of a kid trying to hold his family together.

Schrader’s an ambitious fellow (he made American Gigolo and Mishima, and wrote Taxi Driver). The trouble with this tangle of ideas is that it remains in its confused condition throughout the film. On some basic level, Schrader doesn’t seem to have decided what the focus of the film is to be, and it never does lock into a groove.

The first few scenes contain some useful shorthand. Under the thundering title tune, we meet a grungy Cleveland bar band rehearsing; their hangout, a dive called the Euclid, is wonderfully realized, down to the wooden Indian over the bar. Joe (Michael J. Fox) and his sister Patty (Joan Jett) front the band with considerable conviction. Sensible Joe supplements his income working in a factory where they make trays embossed with the British royal family; fiery Patty just wants to be a singer and have a life of music.

A couple of scenes later, they drive to their parents’ house, along with Patty’s illegitimate son. The visit does not go well. The religious magazines on the coffee table don’t turn the kids on; Dad (Jason Miller) shlumps in the corner and shrugs, “I can’t complain,” to every question; and Mom (Gena Rowlands) opens the conversation with, “So, how are the roads?” (Patty, looking over her shoulder into the street: “How are the roads?“)

But Schrader’s narrative soon wanders. For a while the band hits the road, then pulls back; Patty leaves her child with Joe when she tours with a metal band; Joe loses his job at the plant, and tries his hand at songwriting.

Even the thread of rock ‘n’ roll, which ought to hold the film together, gets lost. The muddle of this movie suggests that Schrader wanted to cover too much ground at once.

The crucial problem is with Joe’s character. He’s heroically trying to keep everything from falling apart, yet he’s so generous and long-suffering that he becomes a little irritating after a while. Michael J. Fox, who’s to be lauded for choosing a serious film such as this to follow Back to the Future, clearly doesn’t have a handle on the character; he winds up staring gloomily off into space much of the time.

That, I think, is less his fault than a fundamental flaw in the script’s conception of him. With the main character a blank, Light of Day never finds its center.

Schrader’s best stroke is the casting of rocker Joan Jett as the troubled sister, who can find meaning only in the throb of music. Jett doesn’t exactly give a performance (this is her first acting experience), but she comes across with an unpolished truthfulness; her look and voice seem eerily accurate for this character.

Oh yeah, the Springsteen story—when Schrader wrote this movie some years ago, he called it Born in the U.S.A. He tried to interest Bruce Springsteen in the project, but Bruce was most interested in the title, which he appropriated for a monster song and album.

Schrader couldn’t use his original title anymore, so Springsteen wrote him a new one—and a new song to go with it. Unfortunately, the song is likely to have a longer life than the movie.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

I guess that last line is accurate, as the movie isn’t out on DVD. Springsteen’s song is awesome, a simple three-chord beast that became an epic work-out for his live shows (and it’s all the better because it sort of sounds like something a bar band might come up with in an inspired moment). The movie’s got a nice final sequence with the song; I wonder if the rest of it holds up at all.