Bright Lights Big City Review
If you have, through some quirk of fortune, forgotten how truly dreadful the 1980s were then Bright Lights Big City will serve as a useful reminder. A collection of terrible fashions, worse music and tedious attitudinising , it's the kind of film which acts as a cinematic time-capsule. The problem is that it returns you to a time you really didn't much like when you lived through it and which you really don't want to revisit. Had it been a well made piece of cinema, this wouldn't be a particular problem, but James Bridges' adaptation of Jay McInnerny's amusing but slight novel is little more than a depressingly mediocre trudge through a depressingly mediocre period of history.
The film centres around the not particularly interesting character of Jamie Conway (Fox), a fact-checker for The New Yorker who spends most of his time snorting coke, throwing back vodka and indulging in maudlin self-pity about his estranged wife Amanda (Cates). Conway is quite clearly headed straight for the toilet as he doesn't do any work and keeps lying to his friends and family for reasons which never quite become clear. We first meet him at 6am in an all-night club, not quite knowing where he is and the rest of the film traces his purported redemption as he moves from coked-up loser to a decent young man who trades his shades for a loaf of bread. While waiting for this magical transformation we meet some minor characters who are much more engaging than Mr Conway, including Clara (Sternhagen), his editor, Tad Aligash (Sutherland), his entertainingly repellent friend, and a drunken writer (Robards) who knew all the greats of American letters and watched most of them drink themselves into their graves.
Words cannot adequately convey the tedium of watching Conway's life unfold on screen. It's like being stuck on a train with a talkative drunk who wants to tell you about the abject misery of his life. Conway, at least as played by Michael J.Fox, isn't so much terminally screwed-up as he is lazy and self-centred and it's difficult not to feel that most of his problems could be sorted out by investing in an alarm clock and going to bed at a decent time. If Conway is meant to represent the sick soul of eighties Yuppiedom then the breed deserved to die out even sooner than it did. It's impossible to give a damn about him and this is a major problem, especially in the scene where he gets fired for not doing his job properly. My reaction to this scene - supposed to be a major dramatic moment - was amazement that he didn't get sacked sooner than he did considering his obvious lack of aptitude for the work.
Fox is a good comic actor and he has some nifty comedy moments here but he simply hasn't got enough depth or presence to get away with the big dramatic scenes that he is required to perform. The moment he begins to search his soul, the pace of the film - sluggish at the best of times - grinds to a halt. At one point, during a monologue in a colleague's apartment, Fox is so obviously out of his element that you feel embarrassed for him. Sean Penn could get away with this sort of thing but Fox just looks like an eight year old boy who has been allowed to stay out late by his neglectful parents. His misty-eyed reminiscences of his wife and his dying mother are given about as much weight as if he'd been told that he'd just been issued with a parking ticket. In a dramatic role which requires some real acting skill, Fox gives the same performance he did in the considerably more entertaining tale of New York life The Secret Of My Success from the previous year. I'm not sure that this film could ever have worked but it might have had a shot with a more convincing leading man.
The film only comes alive when the supporting cast manages to rise to the occasion. Kiefer Sutherland is so much fun to watch as the reptilian Tad that it makes you wonder how much more enjoyable the film might have been with him as the central character. He's particularly amusing in the scenes where he's trying to get Conway laid by lying to various women about how Amanda has tragically died. We're obviously meant to see Tad as completely reprehensible but at least he's got a bit of life about him and doesn't spend all his time looking for answers and wallowing in sentimental memories of his past. As the strict editor, Frances Sternhagen is intimidatingly starchy with a sly turn of phrase as she berates Conway, and Swoosie Kurtz is completely believable as the colleague who tries to help Conway when he loses his job. Best of all, Jason Robards has a little triumph in his small role as the alcoholic writer who is lost in his memories of supping with the 'Greats'. Robards was always an astute comedian - as his brilliant cameo as Ben Bradlee in All The President's Men demonstrates - and his timing here is right on the money. It's hardly a difficult task, but he acts Fox right off the screen and when he wanders off you want to follow him out of the movie.
Given that the film is about the late-eighties, one can hardly complain that the production design is uniformally tacky but there was surely no reason for the film to be so visually undistinguished. Gordon Willis is a fine cinematographer but he doesn't show any affinity whatsoever for this milieu and his work in the nightclubs is so flat as to make the film look like a television movie. The visual style is set by the appalling opening credits which use the sort of primary colour graphics one might expect to find at a kids' party disco. It has to be said that the costumes are very redolent of the era - in other words, an embarrassment. If one thing reminds me of the horrific fashions that I used to try out during the period, it's the jacket and jeans look sported by Fox throughout. Did this ever look any good ? It just screams Jeremy Clarkson to me - and that's never a good thing.
The most shamefully pretentious aspect of the film is the way it keeps trying for profundity. There's a supposedly ironic comparison throughout the story between Conway and the 'Coma Baby' story appearing in the New York Post. This is supposed to remind us of Conway's miserable life and the world which the Coma Baby doesn't want to be born into. Actually, it's simply laughable, notably in a ludicrous dream sequence where the Coma Baby is visually realised through the putative magic of special effects. James Bridges, never an especially proficient director (apart from the unusually effective China Syndrome) lingers on the scenes too long and places too much burden on his star. The best that can be said of him is that when he gets a high-energy performer, like Sutherland or Robards, he doesn't get in their way too much. Only once does he get it right and that's in a climactic scene with Dianne Weist as Conway's dying mother. It's a flashback - one of several - and it doesn't sit well in the movie but it's beautifully acted and directed with a surprisingly tender tone. Weist is so good that she almost saves the film and she's the only character who actually captures our emotions and makes us care. For one moment, it seems to be a film about more than just attitudes or styles but this moment passes all too soon and we're back with Conway and his deeply boring problems.
Even on the level of Eighties' cheese, Bright Lights Big City is sadly inadequate. Admittedly, it gets extra marks for having the good sense to include "True Faith" by New Order on the soundtrack but these marks are then deducted for the subsequent inclusion of "Pump Up The Volume" by M*A*R*R*S. Donald Fagen's score is forgettable muzak which barely registers while you're watching the film. The diseased spirit of the 1980s was conjured up with considerably more wit and insight in American Psycho, both book and film. If you want some trashy nostalgia, you'd be far better watching The Breakfast Club, About Last Night or even Oliver Stone's more solemn but still deliriously silly Wall Street. Apart from the good supporting performances and a couple of interesting scenes, Bright Lights Big City is a waste of time.
This is a back catalogue release from MGM and is entirely typical of their standards. The transfer is average to good and the only extra is a trailer. No-one is likely to be too disappointed although I'm sure even this movie has some devoted fans somewhere.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's not a bad picture at all. The colours are rich and striking, there isn't a serious problem with grain and although there are some artifacts to be seen, this isn't a major issue. The main complaint I have is that the picture looks very soft in places and there is a lack of detail throughout. Some of the blacks seem a bit washed out as well.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround. It's generally fine with the surrounds used mostly for ambient noises and some of the music in the club sequences. The dialogue is largely monophonic but crystal clear.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which is so self-important it leads you to think that the film is some kind of masterpiece. There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
I can't become enthusiastic about Bright Lights Big City but if, for reasons best known to yourself, you like the film then you will probably be pleased with this DVD. Anyone else is advised to steer clear.