Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights, Big City

Writer-director James Bridges had a distinctly sociological and journalistic bent. His films delved into hot-button political issues (the 1979 nuclear meltdown thriller The China Syndrome), brought articles about lifestyle trends to the big screen (1980's Urban Cowboy, 1985's Perfect) and adapted autobiographical novels about narrow cultural milieus, like the classic 1973 law-school drama The Paper Chase and 1988's yuppie-tastic Bright Lights, Big City, where he replaced original director Joyce Chopra. Bridges films sometimes captured the cultural zeitgeist—China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy—and sometimes the zeitgeist escaped them, as with Perfect and Bright Lights, Big City, which re-imagined Jay McInerney's literary doppelgänger as Alex P. Keaton gone to seed.

In the role that failed to shake up his image, Michael J. Fox, America's favorite teenager (even as a late-20s Canadian) plays McInerney's fictional surrogate, a fact-checker at an upscale, New Yorker-like magazine who sublimates his grief over his mother's death and his model wife's abandonment into a nightlife full of clubbing, binge drinking, and blow. All the while, Fox works on an autobiographical novel and stumbles blearily toward redemption. Pity the film's self-destructive protagonist: He wants to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Instead, he's doomed to be Jay McInerney.

Screenwriter McInerney retains much of his novel's heavy-handed symbolism, and some of its second-person narration, via a Fox voiceover. Cinematographer Gordon Willis gives the film a seductive visual sophistication that no amount of padded shoulders, regrettable perms, and questionable fashions can extinguish, and Jason Robards has a juicy cameo as Fox's inebriated would-be mentor. Big City is a film of glossy surfaces and facile pretensions, aided and hindered by Fox's extraordinarily likeable, utterly unconvincing lead performance. An air of boyish wholesomeness clings to the adorable Back To The Future star no matter how seamy his surroundings; even when he's supposed to be neck-deep in a vodka and cocaine haze, he never seems to be riding anything more dangerous than a wine-cooler buzz. Too bad he's caught in a movie that all too accurately captures the tenor of its time with its slick, superficial, coked-up, money-drunk emptiness.

Key features: A pair of fawning featurettes, a predictably details-oriented Willis commentary, and a McInerney commentary that details how closely the film recreates his wasted youth.

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