Skip to main content

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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .