MOVIE REVIEW : Passions Dim in ‘Bright Lights, Big City’

Times Film Critic

How could a movie made from the funny-frightening novel “Bright Lights, Big City” (citywide) have bottomed out this spectacularly? Its author, Jay McInerney, did the screenplay. James Bridges, who has had an almost malevolently clairvoyant eye for the world of disposable trends (“Urban Cowboy,” “Mike’s Murder”), was the director. And Michael J. Fox, a hugely popular television star not exactly unknown to moviegoers, plays the lead.

Well, possibly it degenerated into pretty-looking vacuity because McInerney did the screenplay, Bridges the direction and Fox the central role. While care for an author’s integrity is devoutly to be wished, sometimes a more distanced--not to say practiced--eye is needed than that of the story’s birth parent.

While Bridges is a capital stylist, “Bright Lights” needed a great deal more than style. (Real emotion, for one thing. Believability might also have been nice.) And while Fox is puppyish and charming, his character, Jamie, has to go through a real epiphany during the film’s weeklong time frame and Mr. Fox is hard-pressed to suggest a two-Excedrin headache.


In McInerney’s book, the hero’s best friend is his mutter--his own wry, running commentary on his upscale, undisciplined life, which unravels in one crucial week. During this rock-bottom odyssey he ingests every controlled or damaging substance except possibly furniture polish, under pressure-cooker conditions. However, it’s clear as the scream from Jamie’s throat that this is a young man in mortal pain--and one with enough engaging qualities that we want to see him through all of it.

You may want to care about Fox, but it’s absolutely impossible to believe him, as a writer, as even a recreational druggie and, crucially, as someone in the lacerating pain of desertion--double desertion, as it turns out. Moreover, when he’s given some of the script’s funnier bits of narration, Fox swallows the lines so badly that their caustic edge is lost.

It is his carefully buried pain over the death of his mother (Diane Wiest, seen in flashback) just a year ago that Jamie is avoiding so assiduously. Compounding that is his marriage. Amanda (Phoebe Cates), the pretty little Midwestern waif he married a scant year ago, has taken his advice and tried modeling.

She is now the face that launched a thousand trips to Bloomingdales and is making roughly as much money as Elizabeth Taylor. As our story begins she has just left him. Finally, making it 0 for 3, his, umm, unreliable work habits have put his job as a fact-checker at Gotham, a New Yorker-like magazine, in serious peril.

Helping him make it through the night, bolt upright at 1,000 miles a minute, is Jamie’s close friend Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland), who may just be the devil’s disciple. It’s the insidious charm-boy Tad who has armfuls of women and unlimited quantities of the book’s famous Bolivian Marching Powder. He also has a cousin (Tracy Pollan) who may be Jamie’s turning point, although it’s a little early to tell.

The picture might have had a chance with Sutherland in Fox’s role, although it’s hard to think of anyone the right age with Sutherland’s mocking, supercilious air who could have played Tad this well. Sutherland and Pollan are fine, and so are Wiest, Jason Robards and all the Gothamites.


The richly paneled Gotham magazine provides the movie’s best moments, where Francis Sternhagen appears as Clara Tillinghast, doyenne of the department of factual verification. Robards is one of the magazine’s great gray editors, and Swoosie Kurtz is particularly memorable as Jamie’s sympathetic co-worker, Megan Avery.

Lurking somewhere, one suspects, in curls of film on the editor’s floor, is the rest of the character watercolored in by John Houseman, who may be one of the heads of the magazine, or may not be. Impossible to verify factually.

These Gotham scenes have charm and a point to them: They tell us exactly why this job--making calls to check whether they really served smoked Emperor penguin on Triscuits at the Polar Explorer’s meeting--drives Jamie crazy and why it feels like a cozy niche to Megan.

But the magazine section must end spectacularly with the book’s famous ferret scene, as Tad and Jamie deposit a ferret in Clara’s office. Bridges fails lamentably to punch it up so that it fizzles into a nighttime fraternity prank with no payoff whatever.

The book’s agreeable, tortilla-thin quality may have evoked a rich kid’s “Lower Depths,” but Bridges has sanitized them for our own protection into something cleaner, thinner and far less funny. If he (and his cinematographer Gordon Willis, one of New York’s visual poets) has created a gleaming Manhattan with no trash, no street people and no sense of danger, he has also given us a drug-ridden Jamie with no mortal panic and no sense of existential hysteria.

Want to or not, Fox exudes resiliency, and he hasn’t yet acquired the technique to improve on that very much. Since his director hasn’t been able to pull even a hint of anguish out of him, it leaves us with a pleasantly upbeat central character with a teensy-weensy dilemma: Why go on living?


“Bright Lights” (MPAA-rated R for drug use, language) is not a shabby, embarrassing film, and it’s light years away from “Less Than Zero.” But it’s the work of an intelligent director who can’t think his way into passion. And passion is what this movie cries out for, sure as ferrets are ferrets. ‘BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY’

A United Artists release. Producers Mark Rosenberg, Sydney Pollack. Director James Bridges. Screenplay Jay McInerney from his novel. Camera Gordon Willis. Editor John Bloom. Music Donald Fagen. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art direction Thomas C. Warren. Set decorator George Detitta. Costumes Bernie Pollack. Sound mixer Les Lazarowitz. With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, William Hickey, Phoebe Cates, Charlie Schlatter.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).