Bright Lights, Big City (1988) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive drug use and language
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, James Robards, Tracy Pollan, Dianne Wiest, Charlie Schlatter
Director:  James Bridges
Screenplay: Jay McInerney

Review published January 30, 2006

Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future, Part II) goes for the rare meaty role with the drama Bright Lights, Big City, and the results are impressive and disappointing at the same time.  It's based on the book by Jay McInerney, who also provides the screenplay, but it's one of those cases where those who have read the book and seen the movie prefer the novel.  Still, as a vehicle to show Fox is capable of something more than boy-next-door comedic roles, this is quite the showcase,  and even the performance is nothing that would ever come close to Oscar-worthy, the fact that he's wholly credible as the yuppie-junkie on the skids is reason enough to earn his some praise.

Fox is Jamie Conway, a fact confirmer for a magazine known for its impeccable record for accuracy.  Lately, it's been a trying time for the young, aspiring writer, as his supermodel girlfriend (Cates, Gremlins) has dumped him and his days and nights are spent with visits to the restroom for the occasional snort of coke.  Life is hard enough being one error away from getting canned, but his addictions seem to be overtaking him.

Sadly, the last film of James Bridges' (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy) distinguished career, but there's enough fine elements to think he held things together as well as he could have.  You've probably seen many drug films that center around a character study of an addict on the way out, so the problem lies in the story level more than anything else.  Bright Lights, Big City suffers mostly from being rather common, almost like a television movie of the week with some bad language thrown in, never really giving you the raw guts on display that you'd expect to get from an inside-out anti-drug flick.  It's all too pat, never really developing the profundity that would make you say, "Cocaine is not for me." 

But is it really a film about cocaine?  Perhaps it's the anti-yuppie film, that says success ain't all it's cracked up to be, and those young empty-suits are not really happy, they are as much a pile of quivering jelly inside as the rest of us.  In that case, good move in getting the quintessential yuppie, portrayer of Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties," to unravel the yuppie mystique, and show the dark side of success...the failure to achieve it.

Bright Lights, Big City offers up some occasional food for thought, but really, could have been so much better with a bit more risk-taking and story development.  Fans of Fox and 80s films will enjoy this more than most, while the rest may find it to be more miss than hit in the drama department.  Drug movies need punch to drive their themes home.  Bright Lights doesn't have the killer instinct to do more than just slap you around a little bit.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo