Judge Christopher Kulik isn't from the big city, though he does work with bright lights.
It's 6am. Do you know where you are?
Twenty years ago, Jay McInerney's best-selling novel Bright Lights, Big City was adapted for the screen with extremely mixed reactions. An appropriately downbeat character study about a young yuppie fueled by cocaine and NYC's addictive nightlife, the film didn't have the impact it should have, with many critics citing it as not doing justice to the source material. Now that the film has been given a special edition DVD treatment courtesy of MGM, is it really worth a second look?
Facts of the Case
Kansas grad Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox, Back To The Future) has moved to NYC to seek fame and fortune as a writer. One year later, his life reaches the nadir, when his fashion model wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates, Gremlins) walks out on him for unexplained reasons, and his job as fact-checker at New Yorker magazine is on the line. Jamie's writing instincts have all but disappeared, and he self-prescribes alcohol and cocaine to combat his rising depression. His druggie pal Tad (Kiefer Sutherland, 24) really wants to see him get laid, going so far as telling all the club girls that Amanda is dead. However, when Jamie meets Tad's sweet cousin Vicki, he's inspired to take a look at himself from the outside.
McInerney's first novel is unique in many ways. It's one of the few famous, postmodernist works written entirely in the second person, with its lead character being nameless. Second, it was one of the first books to vividly detail the underground cocaine culture which boomed in the early 1980s. Its success lead to many other books on the subject, including Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, which was filmed in 1987, a year before Bright Lights, Big City. However, the latter film had a troubled production, taking over four years before it finally saw the light of day.
Originally, the project was going to be done at Columbia, with Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) directing, and Tom Cruise playing the lead. McInerney had been involved from the beginning, but was faced with the challenge of how to adapt the novel because of its unique perspective. Eventually, the entire production crumbled and the rights eventually went to United Artists. Mark Rosenberg and the late Sydney Pollack seized the project, initially planning to cast Charlie Sheen (fresh off of Platoon) in the lead role and have Joyce Chopra in the director's chair. She preferred Michael J. Fox, however.
What followed was anarchy. The studio hated what the inexperienced Chopra was doing and the cleaned-up script eliminated all drug references (supposedly not to hurt Fox's wholesome image). Finally, wiser heads prevailed, hiring the more lucrative James Bridges (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy) who, in turn, started a re-write with McInerney, dumping the existing footage, and bringing together a new cast and crew. In the end, Bright Lights, Big City was filmed rather quickly, debuting in April 1988 to disappointing box office returns.
There's no denying that several changes have been made from the novel. Some were subtle, others were not. Still, the film did capture the essence and spirit of McInerney's narrative, something which the author himself felt afterwards. He gave Bridges' film his seal of approval, although devotees of the book and film critics weren't so forgiving. Complaints ranged from Fox being miscast and finding it impossible to care about his character, to a disjointed tone and forced comic bits. Indeed, some of the pleasures of the novel are missing, but that doesn't mean the film version barely leads the horse to water. After 20 years, McInerney is still pleased with the results.
Today's audiences are likely to write Bright Lights, Big City off as a dated mess. This film is pure '80s, so loud in its eccentricities it almost screams for a remake. Others may be prone to laugh at Jamie's predicament, calling him an egotistical jerk with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. As for myself, the film is an excellent document of a bygone era, definitely underrated, and yet oddly unmemorable. Mock the hair, music, and clothes all you want; they don't hurt the themes, story, or characterization. What we have here is a fascinating character study of one man's downfall, set against the backdrop of the pulsating nightlife of NYC decadence.
In fact, I'm not so sure we could have seen a better version of McInerney's book. Bridges may have been a last-minute replacement, but he had already delved into the worlds of journalism (Perfect) and drugs (Mike's Murder), giving him some experience. He brought onboard two of Woody Allen's colleagues: production designer Santo Loquasto and cinematographer Gordon Willis. Both take advantage of NYC, giving the film an effective atmosphere during both the day and night sequences. The offices at the New Yorker, the apartments of Jamie and Megan (nicely played by Swoosie Kurtz), and many of the bar sets are all realistic and detailed.
On McInerney's commentary, we learn that Alec Baldwin and Tom Hanks were opting to play Jamie Conway. It only makes one wonder what the filmmakers thought when they cast Michael J. Fox, who's known for his winning comic talent. If you don't count 1987's Light Of Day, this was Fox's first attempt at a serious dramatic role. While many critics were divided on the result, I believe the second half of Bright Lights, Big City is Fox's finest hour as an actor. However, it admittedly takes time to reap the rewards. Up until the time Conway meets with Vicki (Tracy Pollan, Fox's real-life wife), he's irresponsible, shallow, and narcissistic, only giving a shit about himself. It's only when he comes to grips on how much a loser he is, and reveals what happened to Amanda in a passionate, powerful monologue, that his performance crystallizes.
Matching Fox is a 21-year-old Kiefer Sutherland, who turns a potentially one-dimensional character into a colorful combination of sleaze and slack. Veterans Frances Sternhagen (The Mist), John Houseman (The Paper Chase), and Jason Robards (Magnolia) offer terrific support as the New Yorker bosses. And multi-Oscar winner Dianne Wiest manages to create a massive impression in only a few minutes of screen time. (Footnote: Keep your eyes peeled for David Hyde Pierce making his film debut as a fashion show bartender.)
When MGM initially released Bright Lights, Big City on DVD, consumers were outraged over the pan-and-scan presentation. Whether this is what urged the studio to re-release the film is speculative, but they correct their misstep by now offering the film in an enhanced 1.85:1 anamorphically print. Despite the film's age, it looks remarkable, with outstanding flesh tones, solid black levels, and a minimal amount of grain present. The absence of a DD 5.1 Surround track is head-scratching, but the 2.0 Surround sound is more than acceptable, with alternative choices of French (2.0) and Spanish (Mono). Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish only.
In celebration of the film's 20th anniversary, MGM has managed to supply this low profile feature with some worthy bonus features. First up, we have two audio commentary tracks. Author/screenwriter Jay McInerney talks about his inspirations for writing the book (which he claims is largely autobiographical), provides tidbits about the film's production, and points out all the locations utilized. He manages to keep talking until the final half hour, in which he becomes silent more often than not. As for Willis, he talks about not only working on this film but others in his career (I believe this is his first commentary), as well as his work with both Loquasto and Bridges. Both commentaries are highly recommended for fans of the book and film.
MGM also provides a couple of short featurettes: "The Light Within" and "Big City Lights." The first has Jay McInerney talking more about his experiences adapting the film, with the second focusing on how the film effectively captured the drug 'n party lifestyles of the mid-1980s. Neither of these featurettes are substantial, but still provide some useful information. Rounding out the bonus features is a still photo gallery. The commentaries no doubt provide the real meat, but I think MGM could have done a lot more. Aside from McInerney and Willis, none of the cast or crew came to talk about the film. This also marked the final directorial effort by James Bridges, which opened the door to a perspective on the filmmaker's life and career. Still, the extras are all rock-solid and worth jumping into.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Bright Lights, Big City is a very good movie, one viewing is really sufficient. The film lacks a certain fire which would allow viewers to revisit it again and again. Aside from Fox's monologue, the whole film lacks a sorely needed dramatic punch.
This neglected adaptation of a great novel may be no classic, but it's certainly more engaging than your average drug-laced nightmare. Highly recommended!
Fox, McInerney, and the late Bridges are acquitted, with the film being found Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Author/Screenwriter Jay McInerney
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