*/**** Image B Sound C+ Extras A
starring Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Dianne Wiest
screenplay by Jay McInerney, based on his novel
directed by James Bridges
by Walter Chaw Jay McInerney's nouveau second-person Bright Lights, Big City was my Catcher in the Rye (or, more precisely, his nameless protagonist was my Holden Caulfield), because I caught that bug in the same time of life that most people discover Salinger. I remember a fifteen-year-old me being disappointed when I saw James Bridges's Bright Lights, Big City on the big screen--not because Michael J. Fox wasn't poised for a dramatic breakthrough (he'd have one the following year in Casualties of War), but because Bridges is one of those old-timey directors without any discernible style who can be counted on for the same exhausted, completely lifeless movie no matter the era or the subject. No one else makes a nuclear meltdown (The China Syndrome) exactly as interesting as an aerobics class (Perfect) and Harvard Law (The Paper Chase). I mean, seriously, this is the guy who went out of his way to work with Debra Winger and John Travolta twice during the Eighties. Bridges's picture, surprise to no one, is a limp dick. The vibrancy--the exhilarated, doomed hedonism--of the McInerney novel gets subsumed under cotton-packed fathoms of complete incomprehension of what the source offered in spades: that note of melancholy in the lovelorn and the lost, that feeling of being swept up in something bigger than you. The Bridges picture is flyblown, devoid of pace and heat; it's such a mortician's slab that it's hard to even tell if the Fox performance is wasted on it, though I suspect it is. It's a bigger crime because someone else should have done this book.
This Bright Lights, Big City happens at a strange time, just on the eve of sex, lies, and videotape and what would be a sea change in the way that cinema functions as the archive of our history--so maybe it makes sense that there's a deep, essential disconnect between the words and the representations. Jamie1 (Fox) is a twentysomething fact-checker for an imaginary New York magazine dealing with abandonment from his fashion-model wife (Phoebe Cates) and, in a roundabout way, his mother (Dianne Wiest), whom he lost to cancer. We learn about a lot of this through flat, unimaginative flashback, culminating in a fairly embarrassing scene with Wiest and Fox doing their level best to wade through the sort of earnest, overwritten death scene that never works.
Jamie deals with his existential malaise using what he colourfully refers to in his opening voice-over monologue as Bolivian Marching Powder, which keeps him awake and in the company of best friend Tad (Kiefer Sutherland), often at the expense of his job. His managing editor is stentorian Clara (Frances Sternhagen), his concerned co-worker with a heart of gold is Megan (Swoosie Kurtz), and his last chance at salvation is Vicky (Fox's real-life wife Tracy Pollan). The best moment of the picture belongs to Clara as she demonstrates real regret at having to fire Jamie--the rest of it falls out along lock-steps, with a final scene of unlikely uplift soured by Jamie's unjust rejection of Tad, by a ridiculous code exchange of sunglasses for a baguette, and, through no fault of the film's own, by the World Trade Center looming in the background. In more ways than one, Bright Lights, Big City is branded by its time and, furthermore, by being caught in a year where the best films were generally coming out of Japan (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, Akira--though we should also mention Dead Ringers from Canada and Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line) and already involved in discussing what would be the concern of the next decade: the basic shift that film predicts and precipitates in how we perceive the Truth.
All Bright Lights, Big City does is fumble through the death rattles of the Blockbuster decade by applying the production values, stars, editing philosophy, and ethics of the '80s studio picture to material that is essentially the province of an American indie scene that hadn't yet caught fire. It's possible that it only really needed to marinate for another year: a 1989 film and suddenly it's out of the hands of Bridges and into the company of Drugstore Cowboy, The War of the Roses, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Mystery Train, Heathers, even The Abyss (and, internationally, John Woo's The Killer, Beat Takeshi's Violent Cop, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm). In 1988, the indies were defined by John Sayles's earnest and exceptional if non-threatening pictures (Eight Men Out--his own existential masterpiece doesn't appear until 1996's Lone Star); after 1989, the road to the fin de siècle is primed and inevitable.
There's nothing particularly ugly about Bright Lights, Big City. Compare it to Marek Kanievska's Less Than Zero from the year previous for a glimpse at how some films managed to predict the ethos of the new decade and others simply didn't.2 Mute acknowledgment of that obsolescence, perhaps, it's worth noting that this is the last film that Bridges, a creature almost exclusively of the '80s, directed before his untimely death as well as the last film, for all intents and purposes, of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, a creature almost exclusively of the '70s. The real shame of it is that, unlike other great transitional swan songs (The Misfits, for instance), Bright Lights, Big City comes and goes without demonstrating much awareness that it's got nothing to say about the time that produced it and no instinct for the tide blowing into shore.
The killing stroke is Jamie's redemption and emergence into the light after too long in the dark teatime of McInerney's soul--the kind of move favoured by assholes writing memoirs, as it were. It's the awesome first parts of St Augustine or the Bible versus the pussified equivocations of the second. Bad doesn't begin to describe the sensation of spending two hours on flaccid fucking around only to get a reassuring pat on the back in front of twin architectural reminders that the world is in a tenuous tension with entropy, and losing. Consider a sequence as Jamie and matronly co-worker Megan go on and on about past hurts in a way that one would expect were this a hyphenate effort but shouldn't with a stronger hand at the tiller. Already bad, the ending of Bright Lights, Big City renders the entire exercise irredeemable: out of touch, patronizing, and dead on arrival.
McInerney's freshly-recorded commentary for the film's Special Edition DVD release reveals that the source novel was autobiographical as though it were tablets from Sinai, then proceeds with largely disinteresting minutia about the process of adapting the life out of his screenplay. Hooray for finding the right person for the wrong medium; there's a reason people don't ask Stephen King to adapt his own writing (those reasons are Pet Sematary, Sleepwalkers, Maximum Overdrive, and a shitload of terrible mini-series), and even people who would seem better suited to bad film like Nicholas Sparks usually have assholes like Gerald DiPego doing the honours. When you saddle McInerney's book with McInerney, there's bound to be a tendency to respect the text too much. No less than Faulkner had a hard time of it.
Indispensable is a second yak-track featuring Gordon Willis that goes into detail on the technical side of shooting a picture, any picture. It's through Willis that I began to develop an appreciation for the craft involved in making the '80s club scene lurid and vibrant. If there's life in this picture, it's a result, ironically, of The Prince of Darkness's ministrations. Better is when Willis reflects on his career--on why he's been hired in the past and how he sees himself, in as humble a way as possible, as an intimate collaborator in the film's visual look and editing structure. It's well-cadenced, packed with information, and reason by itself to dip into the DVD.
"Jay McInerney: The Lights Within" (12 mins.) is a continuation of the author's yakker (a repetitive one, I'm afraid) that has the Treat Williams look-alike justifying his decisions and reiterating for the umpteenth time that Michael J. Fox was the right actor for this role. "Big City Lights" (15 mins.) collects a bunch of writers and journalists to discuss the cult of personality surrounding McInerney at the time of the film. That I hadn't heard of any of the talking heads herein speaks volumes about either my ignorance, the general disposability of the piece, or both. Vanity inclines me to lean in one direction, of course, and I point to the fact that everyone raves about the film unconditionally. A photo gallery rounds out the disc. The feature proper docks in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio that reproduces the bloody Eighties neon and New Wave vibes, respectively, with adequate fidelity. Originally published: October 9, 2008.
1. The first concession of McInerney's own adaptation is to give his unnamed protagonist a name. return
2. What is it with Roger Ebert that he'd recommend Less Than Zero (four stars) and Bright Lights (three-and-a-half) in the Eighties, but drop the beat-down on Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction--an adaptation, like Less Than Zero, of a Bret Easton Ellis novel--with, first, a damnably factually-inaccurate review and then the rationale that he didn't "like" any of the characters? The tragedy of Ebert has something to do with what seems to happen to a great many critics: One day you're the only one championing Bonnie & Clyde, the next you're Bosley Crowther. return