"Bright Lights Big City" (1988)

Rating: R:15
Genre: Drama
Directed By: James Bridges
Written By: James Bridges, Jay McInerney
Released: 1st April, 1988
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: MGM Home Entertainment

In this adaptation of Jay McInerney's novel, Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) moves from small-town Kansas to New York City to work at a magazine. However, a number of things are making him miserable: He would rather be a writer, his wife (Phoebe Cates) has left him and his mother (Dianne Wiest) has recently died. So he takes to partying with his yuppie friend Tad (Kiefer Sutherland), abusing alcohol and cocaine. But he quickly finds himself becoming more and more dependent on drinking and drugs.

This is one of my favourite films. I’ve watched it a number of times now. The first time I watched it, I found it so bizarre. I went into it not really knowing what to expect. The fact that it was about a writer struggling with writer’s block and that it starred Michael J Fox were enough to gain my curiosity. I think it was probably a little hard to get into at first as the plot does initially seem kind of mundane. We’re thrown into a weird dream scene as well. I’ll come back to that later. So, all in all I came away not knowing what I’d just sat through. 

I watched it again and realised I hadn’t gone into it with as open a mind as I had thought. I read the book subsequently because I had never read a book written in the second person narrative before. Honestly, I was blown away. it’s one of the best books I’ve read. And it helped me understand the film a lot more as well with more context about the main character’s situation. So, when I watched it a third time I fell in love with it a bit. 

Because the book is written in the second person narrative, the readers are the main character meaning no name is given in the book. Obviously, that wouldn’t work on film so for the purpose of the script the main character was given the name Jamie Conway.

The film is not generally considered among the highest ranking of Michael J Fox’s filmography which I happen to think is a major oversight. Some people have argued that he was miscast, which is possibly a contribution to this. I don’t agree. I don’t see any problem with how he played the character even after reading the book. He’s a talented man. I imagine this wouldn’t have been the easiest role to play and certainly not one typically associated with Michael J Fox. You won’t be coming here for laughs. But while he has his comfort zones, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s one of those actors who could take on any genre and pull it off with flying colours. There is one scene where he has this drunken monologue. Acting drunk is something that can go either way. Either it's well done or its' just laughable. He pulled it off so well, making it one of the more memorable scenes from the film.

His character, Jaimie, is struggling with so many emotional traumas like his divorce and his mother’s passing. His method of dealing with them is his downfall. He’s confused and lost and trying to figure it all out but can’t seem to confront of the pain he feels. Of course, his friend Tad (Kiefer Sutherland) doesn’t help matters as he’s just, however unwittingly, leading him further down the spiral of self-destruction. I don’t think he’s a very good friend and I didn’t like him as a character at all. That being said, Jaimie as a character isn’t always that likable either, but Michael J Fox plays him so endearingly, it doesn’t matter, you’d go along him and care about his wellbeing anyway! (Much like the way he played Alex on the TV show Family Ties.) 

A lot of the scenes are quite surreal. We are never in his POV, but they are shot in such a way so we feel the languid haziness that he feels on a daily basis. Actually, the film reminded me a lot of 1995 film “The Basket Ball Diaries” with Leonardo DiCaprio, although slightly more innocent in ways if that’s possible? The white stuff we see Jaimie snorting was actually powered milk, in case anyone who’d seen the film was curious! There was one moment when blood started pouring from his nose because of it, I think. That was pretty gross.

I said I’d come back to the dream sequence. The first time I watched this I laughed, simply because I wasn’t expecting it, and it was just one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. I was a bit confused. The baby was so ugly, if not creepy. However, after subsequent re-watches of the film in the meantime, I appreciate the cleverness of the set up and it’s one of the reasons why I love this film so much: 

The author, Jay McInerny uses a current story in a local tabloid, the New York Post, as a symbolic representation of the main character. The Coma Baby has been residing in its mother’s womb after the mother suffered a car accident and entered a coma. There is a constant debate throughout the film whether or not the baby will survive. In the dream sequence the main character walks into the delivery room set up in his workplace. As he interacts with the coma baby their dialogue supports the concept that like the Coma Baby the main character wants to avoid facing the harsh realities of life and continue living isolated in his world of drugs, clubs and alcohol. Until the main character hits rock bottom, he cannot and will not realise the errors of his ways. When the main character asks the Coma Baby “Are you going to come out?” its response is “No way josé. I like it in here. Everything I need is pumped in.” symbolising the main character’s attitude towards life. So long as the main character is continued to be provided with his cocaine he will do little to improve his situation. The drugs have completely stolen his motivation towards life. Even after trying to reason with the Coma Baby, it plays out a deaf and dumb routine which mirrors the main character’s unwillingness to allow those who care about him to help him. As the main character does not realize he is represented by the Coma Baby, he will continue to throw away his life and fortune in the pursuit of a good time. 

My favourite scenes are the ones with Vicki. I think these were when Jaimie was most down to earth and in the land of the lucid shall we say. There’s a moment when they are talking outside the steps of a residential building after a date, and we can just see their silhouettes as they talk and eventually kiss. I really liked this shot. It stood out to me while I was watching. I was hoping Tracy Pollan would be in the film more than she was. They make a good pair (evidently both on and off screen!), even in the TV show Family Ties (which is one of my favourite shows), I always really like the episodes they’re in together very much. I haven’t seen Tracy Pollan in many of her roles, but the ones I have seen, she’s a lovely actress.

After every section I guess you’d call them, it would type on the screen “Tuesday: Should have called in sick” or Monday…[this and that]. I liked this aspect to it, I thought it was cool. It tied in with the fact that he was a writer, as well as being a nice option to show time pass. His boss at the magazine company he worked for is another character that sticks out in my mind. She was a quite a sour client. I would not like to get on the wrong side of her. That actress plays Charlotte’s Mother-In-Law, Bunny, in Sex And The City. It was a similar role to that I thought.

I really liked the soundtrack though amidst all of this decadence. It’s a very 80s movie at the end of the day. I liked the music a lot. It was composed by Rob Mounsey, Donald Fegan and Prince. If you enjoy Tangerine Dream then I recommend giving it a listen!

I like Jaimie's arc in this film. He falls into this depravity but seems to come out the other side with a clearer view of the people who are actually good for him. There is hope for him. The film is left very ambiguous in many ways, but there are also clues dropped that might hint at where he's going to go next. Some people would like a more solid ending, but I like this one, I thought it suited the tone of the film and book.

I might be in a minority here but I adore this film. And the book. I can understand why it might not be everybody’s cup of tea but I would recommend it without question.