Movie: Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

This is yet another movie where far more people had the soundtrack than ever saw the picture.  Turns out that is a wise choice.  The record that accompanied 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City is still a solid front-to-back listening experience, unlike most soundtrack albums composed entirely of outsourced tunes.  Now that I have finally seen the movie, I can say it is also a consistent front-to-back experience: a complete failure throughout.

Michael J. Fox is a good actor, but only in select types of roles.  I doubt anybody would describe him as having a broad range.  Here, he plays a deeply unlikeable character and yet does a poor job portraying him.

Fox’s character is a cocaine (or as he calls it here, “Bolivian marching powder”) addict whose model wife just left him. He works as a fact-checker at Gotham magazine, an obvious surrogate for The New Yorker.  So he is definitely, definitely not an alter ego for screenwriter Jay McInerney, who was a fact-checker for The New Yorker and whose first wife was a model.  Nope—definitely not representative of our author.

McInterney, I mean Fox, is always showing up late for work and never seems to do any work when he is there.  He has a co-worker who, inexplicably, is always covering for him and making sure he is OK.  He’s a whiny, selfish, self-pitying asshole.  Sample line of dialogue that made me want to reach into the screen and punch him: “There’s a certain shabby nobility to failing by myself.”  World’s smallest violin, playing just you, dickweed.

And yet the movie is entirely on his side, such as a scene where he finally gets fired and his boss apologizes for it.  Why should she apologize?  He was never doing his goddamn job!

Phoebe Cates has a deeply thankless role as the ex-wife.  It seems every other character talks smack about her because she pursued a modelling career.  I mean, how dare a woman want a career?  And why is a head cast made of her for a mannequin?  Is that mannequin still lying around somewhere?  I’m not asking because I want to have sex with it or anything.  I mean, as far as you know.

While I don’t feel nostalgia for the 80s (having actually grown up in that decade), I can understand this picture would have great appeal for those who do.  This is one of the most 80s movies I have ever seen.  This is all about high-paying jobs of questionable merit, clubbing, drinking, drugging and fucking.  I think this film alone is why American Psycho eventually had to happen.

An opening credits sequence composed of neon lights on a club wall sets the tone well.  One name in those credits threw me for a loop: I wondered what John Houseman would be doing in this, and hoped he would be busting a move on the dance floor after sniffing a snootful of coke from a call girl’s asshole.

One of the most unexpected aspects of this picture is how reactionary it is.  I realize most works of that era shied away from showing drugs or any alternative lifestyles, but everything here is presented as OMG—I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE SEEING THAT!!!  That bartender is a bald woman!  There are two women making out in a bathroom stall!  That’s a man dressed as a woman!  Who will think of the children?!

Compounding everything I disliked about this picture is the pretentiousness.  One of the biggest offenders is the narration, something that should be avoided at all costs, but is especially horrific here as it is in the second person. 

And now it’s time for the usual random observations.  What is this obsession with the New York Post “coma baby” article, especially as it pertains to the deeply horrible dream sequence?  I addition to not believing Fox in his main role, I also didn’t believe Kiefer Sutherland, though I assume he was well and truly on drugs throughout filming.  And why is Jason Robards in this and did he improvise all of his bizarre dialogue such as “Siamese fighting fish in the water cooler”? 

Odd that for a movie that is so pretentious, it has scenes played for laughs, such as a ferret biting into Kiefer’s crotch and refusing to let go.  And we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Fox, though he is a repellent person.  Bright Lights, Big City is somehow simultaneously a complete failure for what it intends to accomplish while being an accurate representation of the smug selfishness of that era.  At least the soundtrack is still awesome.

Dir: James Bridges

Starring Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates

Watched on blu-ray