Bright Lights, Big City
MGM // R // $14.98 // September 2, 2008
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted September 16, 2008
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The Movie:

"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning."
-- Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

Alfred Hitchcock mused that he preferred making movies adapted from marginal novels instead of top-shelf literature. The latter, he reasoned, had already been defined in a medium that didn't necessarily translate so well to a visual sensibility. It's a truism worth remembering with Jay McInerney's debut novel Bright Lights, Big City. While the 1984 book certainly falls short of classic lit, its sharp prose and quirky second-person narration don't come through in the 1988 film of the same name.

Bright Lights the novel sparkled not because of its story, which is fairly pedestrian, but because of McInerney's telling. Among the Brat Pack literati of the Eighties, Bright Lights, Big City was a sort of sophisticated older brother to Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. Both novels examined ennui, soullessness and cocaine in the skinny-tie decade, but McInerney approached his subjects with warmth and humor that eluded Ellis and other young scribes of that era.

Stripped of the novel's vigorous writing, however, the movie version of Bright Lights, Big City is a lackluster affair. Michael J. Fox plays against type as Jamie Conway, a Midwestern writer living in the Big Apple and slaving away in the fact-check department of a New Yorker-type magazine. He is in the depths of depression. Jamie has been dumped by pretty wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates), an ambitious fashion model, and he is still nursing the psychological wounds of losing his salt-of-the-earth mother (Dianne Wiest) to cancer a year earlier. As a remedy to such grieving, Jamie -- basically a semi-fictional stand-in for McInerney -- trolls trendy nightclubs with pal Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) and snorts prodigious amounts of what Jamie memorably dubs "Bolivian marching powder."

That's about it. Things happen in Bright Lights, but the storyline proceeds with not even a whiff of surprise, and almost as little emotion. The characters are too vapid to elicit much sympathy or interest -- even Jamie, an unusually passive protagonist. Dianne Wiest has some poignant moments in flashbacks as Jamie's mother, but even this narrative thread feels like she is serving as a sort of placeholder for a depth that never arrives. Tellingly, Jamie tells a coworker (the underused Swoosie Kurtz) why Amanda left him. "She wanted to live a magazine ad, and I wanted to live a literary cliché." Well, at least Jamie is living his dream.

Part of the problem is Fox, a good actor who was woefully miscast. McInerney's DVD commentary reveals that other actors who sought the role included Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks and Judd Nelson. Any of them likely would have made a better fit than Fox (even Nelson), whose boy-next-door likeability is at odds with Jamie Conway's self-torment.

The movie does boast flashes of the book's wit, particularly Jamie's dissertation on the appeal of the New York Post and his fascination with an ongoing Post story involving a "coma baby," but such episodes are saddled between sluggish stretches of obvious, talky drama. It is an unfortunate final work for director James Bridges, whose credits included superior fare like The Paper Chase and The China Syndrome. Bridges died of cancer five years after Bright Lights, Big City.


The Video:

Correcting the film's previous pan-and-scan incarnation on DVD, this special edition is in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1. The picture quality is excellent, with bold colors and details. Except for very minor edge enhancement, a top-notch print transfer.

The Audio:

The Dolby Digital 2.0 is adequate, if unremarkable. A 2.0 French track is included, as is a mono Spanish track. Optional subtitles are in English and Spanish.


A commentary by Jay McInerney is generally interesting and informative, but he clearly could have benefited from someone else with whom he could interact. Surprisingly, his remarks are eclipsed by a separate commentary track featuring director of photography Gordon Willis. One of the true giants in cinematography (credits include The Godfather pictures and many of Woody Allen's best films), Willis offers a nifty introduction to the fundamentals of his craft, along with a critical eye to what works -- and what doesn't -- in the visuals of Bright Lights, Big City. All in all, Willis' commentary is a gem for any film buff.

Big City Lights (14:54) gathers an assortment of creative types for a retrospective of how McInerney's novel encapsulated the culture of the Eighties. As someone who experienced the thick of that period, I've got to say there is some serious mythologizing taking place.

Jay McInerney's The Light Within (12:09) is an extensive interview with the author; it covers much of the same ground as his commentary. Rounding out the supplemental material is a photo gallery.

Final Thoughts:

God knows there are far worse flicks glamorizing the drugs 'n' clubbing of the 1980s, but Bright Lights, Big City doesn't come close to capturing the wit of Jay McInerney's novel of the same name.

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