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Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City
(1988)

(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

Bright Lights, Big City, based on Jay McInerney’s novel, had a rocky road to the screen, passed between a multitude of stars (including, apparently, Tom Cruise, who blanched at the drug content), screenplays and directors, with United Artists never entirely convinced by the risky material. At one point, Joel Schumacher was interested (appropriate, since St Elmo’s Fire was the next baby step on from Hughes-ville). Then Joyce Chopra came aboard and secured Fox to star, but got the chop a week into filming. Veteran James Bridges came in, picked a draft that hadn’t been expunged of drugs reference due to a studio nervy about turning off Fox’s family fanbase, and set to work.

And what Bridges ended up with was, well, drab. As Pauline Kael said – and she wasn’t entirely down on it – there’s “no excitement, no vision”. Fox’s Jamie Conway never seems remotely enervated by his coke habit (largely referred to as Bolivian marching powder in the movie), just a little sweaty or tired round the eyes. With maybe a touch of tousling of his de rigueur 80s mullet. His jeans, jacket and tie ensemble is far more distracting; would Gotham Magazine – based on the New Yorker – actually allow their employees to look such scruffs, irrespective of how incompetently they do their fact checking?

You might argue poor Jamie isn’t able to (have fun), wracked by guilt as he is over mother Diane Wiest’s death and obsessing over wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) walking out on him, but that’s the whole point of him taking drugs. At very least, the club scene around him ought to have a modicum of atmosphere (the soundtrack is pretty good, just never used to engaging effect). Relatively, Kiefer Sutherland, as roguish snort buddy Tad, seems to be having an actual good time (being Sutherland, he probably was). Indeed, Jamie’s parting rebuke to Tad – “You and Amanda would make a terrific couple” – comes across as entirely unwarranted moralism that’s difficult to get behind, such that you wonder how long Tracy Pollan will be sympathetic to him (obviously, not in real life).

Bridges made The China Syndrome, of course, but his output was otherwise distinctly patchy; his previous picture was the entirely less-than Perfect, and Bright Lights, Big City would turn out to be his final film. His approach to the material is disappointingly pedestrian (there’s a “comedy” scene involving a puppet ferret where you’d swear he couldn’t be arsed). It arrived following the also-downer, drugs-are-bad edition of Less than Zero the previous year. It was an adaptation Brett Easton Ellis did not like initially, Downey Jr and Spader aside, but has since warmed to. The films’ thematic similarities, the party being over-wise, are matched by their critical mauling and the public indifference that greeted them. I’m not sure you’d be advised to make an actually faithful adaptation of Less than Zero – although Tarantino, naturally, has professed an interest – but casting Andrew McCarthy in the lead role certainly wasn’t the place to start.

Whereas Fox is fine here, mostly. If you can ignore his terrible drunk acting (but let’s face it, Cruise has done worse). When he’s still employed by Gotham Magazine, the movie manages a degree of balance, with memorable faces and performances as a contrast to Jamie’s stale misery – Swoosie Kurtz’s kindly singleton, Frances Sternhagen’s stern but deep-feeling boss Clara, John Houseman’s pained chief fact checker Mr Vogel; even Alec Mapa’s sarcastic co-checker (“Still got that nasty sinus problem, huh?”) There’s also a glimpse of what’s in store even if Jamie did have the job he wanted, via Sam Robard’s soused fiction department writer/ reader. Once Jamie’s given the boot, however, there’s only dead space left; his drug taking isn’t interesting, his leaden visions of guilt (Coma Baby headlines, and talking baby) are desperately poor, and his obsession with Amanda is banal.

There was certainly nothing wrong in principle with Fox’s desire to stretch himself, but in his serious dramatic roles – Casualties of War excepted, where he feels like he’s outside his comfort zone – the material didn’t really fit, as opposed to his lacking the capability. Maybe he should have persevered – Hanks was in a similar boat, and eventually won all the plaudits ever – but as it turned out, he wouldn’t have unlimited time to test his options.

Bright Lights, Big City, ironically, might have been a better movie if it had expunged the drug element, instead focussing on the trials and tribulations of an aspiring writer caught in the drudgery of an uncreative career. There’s one scene that sticks in the mind above all others, where Jamie is summoned before Clara and Mr Vogel to explain his errors in an article, and he recounts his – scrupulous – reasoning in choosing “precipitous” over “precipitate”. The scene, the exchanges, the dialogue, possess an energy largely absent elsewhere. Capturing that might have been the secret to Bright Lights, Big City being a success.


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