MVD Rewind Collection: Bright Lights, Big City (1988) - Reviewed

The late writer-director James Bridges, best known for directing critically acclaimed hits including The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy and the Academy Award winning The Paper Chase, came into a scenario not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus with his last film Bright Lights, Big City.  Unlike his prior films which were from the ground up the work of James Bridges and his lifelong partner and producer Jack Larson, Bright Lights, Big City was already in production with another cast under director Joyce Chopra before being fired for working too slowly.  There were also complaints Chopra and her screenwriter were straying too far from James McInerney’s novel by purging many of the darker elements of the story out.

Coming into the long-gestating project which was in preproduction since 1984, within seven days Bridges rewrote the script with James McInerney adapting his own novel for the screen and recast the picture save for the two leads Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland.  Bridges also had the carte blanche to pick two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Gordon Willis to lens the film, which the studio obliged.  The picture sought to challenge the clean-cut public persona of Michael J. Fox as well as adopt what was often referred to as a ‘modern day The Lost Weekend’ to the silver screen.   The resulting film, while imperfect with some wild detours we’re not always certain how to take, offers Fox some of the finest acting chops of his career.

Playing a twenty-something fact-checker working for a Manhattan based magazine, Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) once dreamed of being an accomplished writer married to beautiful model Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  But that was eons ago.  Now his day to day existence consists of nightclubbing, boozing and snorting copious amounts of cocaine while staying up all night and sauntering into work hung over and tardy.  It doesn’t help that his coke buddy/party animal Tad (Kiefer Sutherland) is there to lure him out every night away from his responsibilities into the hedonistic pit of debauchery and substance abuse.  When we first meet Jamie, his life is already spiraling out of control with the remainder of the picture following his travelogue to rock bottom. 
Simultaneously a character study and an acerbic critique of the transparency of the big apple night life, Bright Lights, Big City finds a curious tone in the soundtrack.  Equal parts ‘80s synth pop ala Prince, New Order, Depeche Mode and M/A/R/R/S, the counterpoint to the climactic sensory overload of the club scenes is a melancholy, bitter and cool score by Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen with fellow keyboardist Rob Mounsey.  Fagen, who contributed the original track Century’s End to the picture, is an undisputed master of cynicism and in a rare bit of film composition work finds the perfect match for his wry, sardonic outlook on life.  And the aforementioned Gordon Willis lenses the Manhattan landscape, replete with the Twin Towers still standing which dates the film some, with both chilly regard for the brick and mortar canyons and lush colors for the illegal substance filled club scenes.

That Conway is difficult to read as a character thanks to Fox’s performance (which he acts the Hell out of by the way) actually winds up being a very realistic portrayal of a young man whose life has been consumed by a day-to-day search for intoxication.  Surrounding characters, like we, are inclined to offer help to Conway who has long lost the capacity to care for his own well-being.  We’ve all shared the misfortune of coming into contact with poor souls like Conway’s at one point in our lives or another and neither we nor Conway really know what to do about it. 

Yes many are skeptical of Fox with some complaining he was miscast in such a part which had been offered to Tom Cruise at one point who wasn’t keen on being seen doing cocaine on film.  However, that very dichotomy between his innocent looking image and his actions behind the closed doors of bathroom stalls only amplifies the contradictory conundrum that is Jamie Conway.  While we’re given glimpses of a past full of pain and heartache at home with growing distance between himself and his family, brother and wife, we’re never really sure just what propelled Conway into the void.  The film could have gone the easy didactic route of forming a moral stance on the proceedings, yet director Bridges’ portrait remains a nonjudgmental character study of a man lost in the hedonistic abyss of the city night life.

- Andrew Kotwicki