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

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.