Bright Lights, Big City (1988) dir. James Bridges
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Tracy Pollan
In 1988’s “Bright Lights, Big City” Michael J. Fox was cast against type as a coke-addled hack writer struggling to stay afloat after the break-up with his wife. His marvelous and truthful performance and James Bridges’ mature direction help make “Bright Lights, Big City” one of best films to bottle the late 1980’s cultural zeitgeist–a solemn introspective version of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”.
Jamie Conway (Fox), the alter-ego of the film’s novelist/screenwriter, Jay McInerney, is a writer whose career has plateaued with a mind-numbing job as a fact-checker for a second-rate magazine. He continually dreams about his recently separated wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates). The film joins Jamie midway through his depression drowning out these sorrows snorting lines of coke in bathroom stools of late night dance clubs.
But Jamie is a charmer and he manages to keep the appearance of control. Curiously he continually tries to avoid his younger brother’s attempts to make contact with him. Gradually as his job unravels and his dependence on drugs increases, through a few key flashbacks we get to know of Amanda’s betrayal and the dark memories of his family life in Kansas City – the sad circumstances which led to Jamie’s concerted attempt to escape from reality.
The great DOP Gordon “The Godfather” Willis lenses the film with colours of the day. Bright neon, clean lines, bold reds, pinks and greens popping out of the frame. Underneath the loud (and often obscene) music and stylish visuals Bridges keep his frames cold and undecorated emphasizing the emptiness of this lifestyle.
Jamie’s backstory is important to explaining the current state of his life. The key reveals in the film occur in Jamie’s flashbacks. But what we don’t see is his life in Kansas City. The allure of the Big City (hence the title) brought Jamie to gotham. The drug was the Manhattan lifestyle and once addicted the chemical substances clung to him easy.
Though much is made of the shocking site of the wholesome former teen idol, Michael J. Fox, doing lines, “Bright Lights, Big City” is not a drug film. We never see Jamie get hooked, we never see him do his first line, and we never see him kick the habit, nor do we see anyone reference his habit. Jamie’s dilemma is Amanda and his regret with his mother. Bridges is smart to leave out the clichéd scenes of over-the-top partying, excessive behaviour and cold turkey withdrawal and the closure of his recovery. Bridges lets the audience determine the state of his habit. Like Bridges’ other films, in particular “The Paper Chase”, the mood and tone are kept quiet – a minimalism which respects the audience’s ability to interpret cause and effect without the blunt hammer of exposition.
“Bright Lights, Big City” was the last film for James Bridges – an underrated writer/director with small but impressive body of work. Sadly Bridges died of Cancer in 1993 at age 57. His two other great films include 1973’s “The Paper Chase”, the marvelous inside look into the competitive world of Harvard Law School and 1979’s “The China Syndrome”, the Oscar-nominated political film about a nuclear accident cover-up. “Bright Lights, Big City” fits snuggly beside both these great films. Bridges brings the integrity of a journalist to the dramatic treatment of all three stories. Like a good journalist, throughout his career Bridges eschewed sensationalism for truth. Unfortunately it didn’t always make for popular cinema, but the maturity of his work has stood the test of time. Enjoy.
A 20th Anniversary of “Bright Lights, Big City” is available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment