The name Michael J. Fox tends to evoke either the character of Alex P. Keaton from the wildly successful television program Family Ties, or Marty McFly from the equally successful Back to the Future trilogy. It is therefore easy to forget that between 1987 and 1989, Fox attempted to expand his repertoire by uncharacteristically appearing in three solid dramas, including Paul Schrader's Light of Day and Brian DePalma's Casualties of War (which I still think ranks as his best performance, persevering as Private Eriksson opposite Sean Penn's psychopathic Sgt. Meserve). His most decidedly risky move - the one that really raised eyebrows - was sullying his well scrubbed, polite-yet-smart-alecky persona by playing Jamie Conway, a coke and booze addled lost boy in Manhattan in Bright Lights, Big City (in all fairness, the role is largely sympathetic and somewhat of a variation, but it was still a calculated gambit in 1988). Even more surprising was the fact that Fox actually pulled it off, though his version of being strung out - based on appearances - consists of sniffling, tussled hair, and a wrinkled, untucked oxford shirt hanging over his khakis. (Fox also has the kind of face that will make him appear twenty-five when he is sixty; he does not naturally appear jaded, intense, or world-weary.)
Based on the heady nightlife of New York's downtown club scene and the staid confines of "Gotham Magazine" (think the New Yorker), McInerney's novel was a big hit when published. Bright Lights (which McInerney also adapted) introduces Jamie in a club on an early Sunday morning, numbed from partying into the wee hours with partner in crime Tad Allagash (a snarky Kiefer Sutherland, the sort of old money type that refers to people as "coach" or "sport," and is constantly on the prowl for "sneeze and squeeze.") In voiceover, Jamie laments his current situation, largely due to his model wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) having left him while in Paris. However, he also notes his newfound enthusiasm for "Bolivian marching powder," and is soon journeying to one of many bathrooms throughout New York for temporary escape.
Things soon get even worse, as all this decadence begins to exact quite a toll on Jamie's professional life as well. He works as an editor / fact checker for the exalted Gotham, a place where he thought he could realize his dreams of being a fiction writer but is now relegated to something decidedly more banal. (When asked if he writes, Jamie responds, "That seems to be a matter of opinion.") Although he receives help in the form of wake-up calls from Meg (Swoosie Kurtz), his sloppiness gets him in trouble with his immediate boss Clara (Frances Sternhagen) and the formidable Mr. Vogel (John Houseman, appearing weak, reduced to a line or two, and usually seen leaving Clara's office). Avoiding phone calls from his brother Michael (Charlie Schlatter) for reasons not known and monitoring the progress of the "coma baby" - a heavy-handed metaphor to be sure - in the New York Post (his most "shameful" of many addictions), Jamie continues spiraling out of control during a particularly pivotal week of his young life.
McInerney and Fox gently explore the more introspective tendencies of addiction rather than indulge in the histrionic blowouts, etc., that often characterize such films (though a few unavoidably heated moments are included). Jamie's internal discourses are read aloud by Fox, and his problems in coping with his mother (effectively played in a few brief scenes by Dianne Wiest) are told in hazy, nostalgic flashbacks. As he navigates the world of heiresses, aspiring actresses, and some of the trendiest downtown toilets, McInerney even affords Jamie a brief respite and the promise of a better day in Vicky (Tracy Pollan, Fox's wife), Tad's cousin from out of town. Bright Lights refuses to succumb to either outright depravity or movie-of-the-week "issue" pandering, and boasts a few nice bon mots and exchanges, including the following between Meg and Jamie: "Are you sure you're awake?" "Sure feels like it... headache, queasy stomach - all the vital signs." The film possesses a much greater degree of patience and insight than its young protagonist.
Fox does an admirable job at playing dazed rather than confused (albeit with the physical hindrance of being too well scrubbed, as noted above). Sutherland is effortlessly smug, Kurtz is wide-eyed and maternal, and Cates, vacuous and pretty, has nothing much to do. Sternhagen adds a few subtle hints of emotion below her icy veneer, and Jason Robards appears to be having a grand time chewing the scenery in his few appearances as a pickled ex-writer who dreams of the good 'ol days. Particularly alert viewers will also notice Kelly Lynch and David Hyde Pierce in extremely brief scenes.
Video: For some inexplicable reason, MGM / UA has released Bright Lights, Big City in a pan and scan 1.33:1 version (it was filmed with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio). What makes this even more inexplicable - and frustrating - is that the transfer itself is very good, with the exception of what appears to be some occasionally distracting edge enhancement. Gordon Willis' cinematography is characteristically excellent: the brown, yellow, and orange hues of Manhattan's old world literary lions in their Gotham den and the candy-colored garishness and dark recesses of the club scene are all nicely rendered. Flesh tones, detail, black levels, and color saturation are all uniformly well presented, and, based upon what's on the screen, an anamorphic transfer would have been welcome.
Audio: Presented in a DD 2.0 surround mix, Bright Lights, Big City also sounds good, if not remarkable. Donald Fagen's score is appropriately bluesy and jazzy, and the soundtrack - which features some eighties mainstays such as New Order, Prince, and Bryan Ferry in the club sequences - is well chosen. Surround activity is discreet and dialogue is easy to hear (when not being challenged by club music). It also features the song "Century's End" by Donald Fagen over the closing credits, which in many ways crystallizes the period better than McInerney's novel and the film itself.
Extras: The only supplemental feature included in this release is the film's trailer (1:32).
Final Thoughts: Nicely balancing the gently comedic and quietly dramatic in its approach, Bright Lights, Big City is commendable for its earnestness, excellent cinematography, and well-oiled cast. Fox remains likeable and self-deprecating throughout, though a few rougher edges in character and overall tone (and a bit more complexity, as its conclusion is rather pat) might have been beneficial. Bright Lights also boasts a good sense of place, as the New York streets are used sparingly but to nice effect. Lastly, the film does not appear as a curious cultural relic of its time - it has aged better than I suspected it would, which is to say surprisingly well.
Bright Lights, Big City would be recommended were it not for its pan and scan transfer. As such, it is recommend solely as a rental.