Thursday, September 18, 2008

Down Here In Fact

Just thinking about BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY takes me back to the eighties, walking down the street in New York, feeling like the whole world was in front of me. Not that I had any experience in drug use in the New York nightclub circuit back then, but when I see the movie and its presentation of the streets of the city, how they really looked back then, for a few minutes I almost feel like I’m right back there. I have a fairly vivid memory seeing Michael J. Fox chased through the streets of midtown from his trailer to the location they were shooting this film in. I’m not sure if I’m right, but my memory is that bit of madness I witnessed took place the week Fox was on the cover of People while THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS became a huge hit. It’s interesting because BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, based on the novel by Jay McInerney which I read more than a few times back then, is kind of the anti-SECRET OF MY SUCCESS, one of those things which help it stay interesting today. There was never any way for the film, at least this version of this film, to fully replicate the book’s famous second person narrative style (“You are not the kind of person who would be in a place like this…”) so all we’re left with is the story, which isn’t the most earth-shattering. But if we’re left with the film, then at least we’ve got one that holds up pretty well and its refusal to be the slick 80s movie that other hands might have turned it into means that it’s dated surprisingly well.

Released in April 1988, the film presents a single week in the life of Jamie Conway (Fox) an aspiring novelist living in New York and working as a fact checker at Gotham magazine (a thinly veiled version of The New Yorker) who has gotten sucked down into the late night world of nightclubs, booze and drugs. His best friend Tad Allagash (Keifer Sutherland) only helps him dive into doing more coke and as the situation at his job becomes more and more precarious, he still has to face the reality being left by his fashion model wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) as well as certain other events in his past which he’s managed to bury.

The big issue is that Michael J. Fox has always been looked at as a problematic casting choice for the lead. It feels like the character has a slicker exterior in the book and McInerney himself on the new DVD audio commentary mentions names like Alec Baldwin, Judd Nelson and even Tom Hanks as being in the mix. Fox was younger than a few of those guys which helps him in seeming more lost in this world and his own obvious likable nature helps as well. For that matter, the first line of the book and film is the famous “You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this…” opener so maybe the fact that he doesn’t quite belong there is actually a good thing. Fox definitely has his moments throughout, especially when he seems the most lost in that late night world. When he needs to be more likable in some scenes it’s slightly more problematic, as if Fox isn’t quite sure how to modulate his familiar persona to this context. But it should be remembered that Fox, in the wake of BACK TO THE FUTURE, made attempts to branch out as an actor with this film, DePalma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR and Paul Schrader’s LIGHT OF DAY. While they may not all have been artistically successful hey, at least the guy was trying.

It should be noted that the name Jamie Conway (which sort of sounds like Jay McInerney spoken very fast) originates with this movie, since the second-person narrator was deliberately unnamed beyond being simply “You”. Eleven years after this film FIGHT CLUB was able to pull off giving us a lead character/narrator with no name and it makes me think that there could have been some appropriate visual style brought to BRIGHT LIGHTS as well that could have allowed this—actually, it also makes me think that a David Fincher version of this material would have been pretty interesting. The film we got was directed by James Bridges (THE CHINA SYNDROME) and photographed by the great Gordon Willis in a dry, fairly naturalistic style. This aesthetic has its benefits as well as its drawbacks—the second person narrative is, after all, a kind of stylization but the movie never makes any attempt to give us a cinematic equivalent. Still, even though we have this setting, the clothes and the music (not that I mind being reminded of New Order and Depeche Mode) there’s nothing about it which says “80s movie” that would make it an embarrassment today. As it is, the mere sight of Michael J. Fox doing coke is a little surprising to see. It’s also easy to imagine a version where all the drug use is removed which would render the story meaningless, but crazier things have come from big studios. The Wikipedia page indicates that Joel Schmacher was once attached to direct and I’d rather not even think about what that BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY would have been. The screenplay was written by McInerney and if memory serves, it's an extremely faithful adaptation for the first two-thirds, at least in terms of plot and dialogue, until a number of incidents are dropped in order to get to the main dramatic beats near the end faster. The look and presentation of New York feels suitably lived-in with ideal locations used throughout and the research offices of Gotham magazine fee particularly like what you'd imagine such a place would be. The sequences also give a look at what this sort of research job must have been like in the pre-internet days and speaking as somebody who’s done this sort of thing in the modern age, it looks a little terrifying. The look at the West Village feels right as well. Jamie Conway lives in an apartment building on Charles Street which I actually spent a fair amount of time in when I was a teenager, something that makes me feel even more nostalgic while watching this.

Fox, as stated, has some very good moments but he still has scenes like a very, very long drunken monologue where he tells about his wife leaving him. If memory serves, most of this information was given through exposition in the book and it feels like it was placed here maybe partly because they couldn’t think of an alternative and partly to give Fox a big show-stopper. It’s not that he’s inadequate, because he’s on his game here as much as he was able to be. it’s that the speech goes on so long it feels like we’ve stumbled into some kind of off-Broadway showcase and poor Swoosie Kurtz, trying to bring something to an underwritten role, isn’t allowed to do anything but sit there and look concerned, when you could imagine that anyone in that position would have commented on how bad Conway looks by this point. The film feels well-cast down to the small roles, with Sutherland particularly good as best friend Allagash (he might have been an interesting lead as well) and the extra level of humanity he brings (not as evident in the book) slightly throws things out of whack. I felt a small bit of satisfaction hearing McInerney on the commentary say that he always felt that Conway’s kiss-off line to Allagash was a little harsh. The words are the same as in the book but the context is slightly different and, drugs aside, Allagash has managed to demonstrate some actual friendship towards Conway, so it doesn’t feel like he deserves such treatment. Tracy Pollan, who Fox married shortly after production, appears as a possible savior for Conway but while I can believe the film has great resonance for the pair, her scenes didn’t do much for me here. Like much of the film, the dialogue is what’s in the book, but something still feels missing. A number of familiar faces seem to pass by in the club scenes, such as Kelly Lynch and Jessica Lundy each in their first film, both very funny as the women Conway and Allagash party with early on. These were the days when Lisa Edelstein was fairly well-known as a club girl in this world and I found myself looking around at the corners of the frame for a possible cameo, but no dice. One surprising person who does turn up is David Hyde Pierce as the bartender at the fashion show who gets one line (“Bar’s closed.”) in his quick appearance. Appearing unbilled is Jason Robards as the old Gotham writer Mr. Hardy (Wasn’t he also unnamed in the book?) very good as the sort of drunk who won’t stop talking about how he once knew Faulkner.

The end of BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY offers a view of the downtown skyline which of course features the World Trade Center, which was seen on the cover of the book as well. Only five years after it was released, director James Bridges died of cancer. This was his last film. Producer Sydney Pollack died earlier this year, Director of Photography Gordon Willis has been retired since 1997 and star Michael J. Fox has of course been suffering from Parkinson’s for a number of years now (Tad Allagash’s resurgence as Jack Bauer seems somehow appropriate). All of these things are reminders that it’s been a long time since I saw Michael J. Fox being chased down the streets of Manhattan. BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY isn’t without its problems and never achieves the impact of the book, but it does succeed in presenting an earnest, affecting look at its characters and world. It’s dated in a good way. In some respects, it’s better than I remember it being at the time.


Unknown said...

Wow, what a great article! I really can't add much more except to say that you nailed exactly how I feel about this film. I haven't watched it since... oh, probably when it first came out on video but I have bought the new DVD that just came out and am eager to watch this again with your comments in mind.

Michael J. Fox was quite good in this film and I also thought he was excellent in CASUALTIES OF WAR. Not so crazy about LIGHT OF DAY but I don't think that was his fault. It's a shame that the mainstream movie-going public didn't want to see Fox in these kinds of roles. I get the feeling that he was bummed about this and as a result he's been relegated to doing sitcoms and comedies for the rest of his career.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much for that, J.D. If you watch it again, I'd be curious to hear what you have to say.

Fox always was a good actor and I think what happened in life for him caused things to go in a different direction even more than the financial failure of these dramas. I admit, I barely even remember LIGHT OF DAY (and don't have much of a desire to revisit it) but CASUALTIES OF WAR is indeed excellent and it deserves to be known by more people.

Unknown said...

"...CASUALTIES OF WAR is indeed excellent and it deserves to be known by more people."

Agreed. Despite Sean Penn's tendency to chew up the scenery, this is a very powerful film.

It's weird, the week before I read your review of BRIGHT LIGHTS, I re-watched LESS THAN ZERO which is another fascinating snapshot of '80s excess and pop culture. I wonder what James Spader would have done with Kiefer Sutherland's character. Spader seems so synonymous with Yuppie scumbags in films of that decade.

I will definitely chime in with my thoughts when I get a chance to watch BRIGHT LIGHTS.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

LESS THAN ZERO actually occured to me as I was writing this but I haven't seen it in a really, really long time so I couldn't think of anything to really say about it. And if memory serves, isn't a very faithful adaptation at all. It might be an interesting one to revisit...but something tells me it'll feel more 80s-slick than BRIGHT LIGHTS ever wants to be.

Unknown said...

"...And if memory serves, isn't a very faithful adaptation at all. It might be an interesting one to revisit...but something tells me it'll feel more 80s-slick than BRIGHT LIGHTS ever wants to be."

Agreed. And it sure isn't that faithful at all but it does capture the look and feel of that time period quite well, which is, I think, it's enduring legacy. That, and an incredible performance by Robert Downey Jr.