'Bright Lights, Big City' Only Flickers 20 Years On

Kiefer Sutherland, left, Michael J. Fox and their hair star in 1988's
Kiefer Sutherland, left, Michael J. Fox and their hair star in 1988's "Bright Lights, Big City." (Mgm)
By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

Two decades have passed since "Bright Lights, Big City" was released in theaters. So does that mean that the movie, based on the influential '80s novel by celebu-scribe Jay McInerney, is: (a) more intriguing now that so much time has passed or (b) nothing more than a relic of a bygone, coke-fueled, Depeche Mode-dominated era?

Turns out the answer is neither. "Bright Lights," released this week on a special-edition DVD ($14.98) that celebrates its 20th anniversary, certainly contains dated details that tip it toward the relic side. (See Kiefer Sutherland's moussed hair or the score by Donald Fagen, which often sounds like an early attempt at the theme from "Doogie Howser, M.D.") But ultimately, it's nothing more than a semi-decent film that tells a familiar tale (good guy does too many drugs en route to redemption) without ever rising to the level of "significant." The movie is certainly not great, but it's also not nearly as bad as history or its weak box office intake suggest.

The performances, especially from its supporting cast of veteran actors, emerge as the best things in "Bright Lights." Jason Robards as an alcohol-soaked literary editor, Dianne Wiest as a cancer-stricken mother and Frances Sternhagen as a taskmaster of a boss all deliver layered, affecting portrayals even though their parts border on the minuscule. Just watch Sternhagen when she has to fire the drug-addled Jamie (Michael J. Fox) and, her lips quivering, she briefly breaks her all-business veneer. It's a small but breathtaking moment.

As for Fox, he does a respectable job in a role that, as McInerney points out during his commentary, many in Hollywood thought he should not have won. One can sort of see their point. No matter how hard Fox flings himself into Jamie's desperate, club-hopping persona, the actor can't quite get past one inescapable truth: Most people don't want to see Alex P. Keaton snorting coke. Then again, that's also what keeps you watching: You can't turn off the DVD until you know that Alex -- or, if you prefer, Marty McFly -- will be okay.

Given the fascinating, often troubled history behind the production, I had hoped the DVD extras would dish a little dirt or at least provide new insight into how "Bright Lights, Big City" got made. Other than commentary by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who at least acknowledges that the original director, Joyce Chopra, was fired and eventually replaced by James Bridges, there is only a brief mention of the problems that plagued the project. And no one even bothers to note that Tom Cruise and filmmaker Joel Schumacher were attached to "Bright Lights" for quite a while before both moved on to other things.

In the end, that's what is most disappointing about this DVD. What could have been a compelling look at a seminal novel of the '80s and its rocky path through Hollywood ends up being a rudimentary release with a couple of decent commentary tracks and two forgettable featurettes. For loyal fans of Fox, or people who love the '80s even more than the talking heads in those VH1 specials do, "Bright Lights" deserves a spot in your Netflix queue. But if you seek a truly scathing satire of '80s drug culture, also based on a novel by a member of the literary Brat Pack (Bret Easton Ellis), please report to the more recent "American Psycho," stat.

Trivia: During his commentary, McInerney runs through a fascinating list of actors who all wanted the coveted role snagged by Fox, including Tom Hanks, Judd Nelson and Alec Baldwin.

Oops: The featurette "Big City Life" offers a lot of tired observations about the importance of New York. (Yes, we know it's a cultural epicenter. Thanks for the tip.) Worse, both the menu screen and the DVD case get the title wrong, referring to the mini-doc as "Big City Lights."

"BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY" is rated R and runs 108 minutes.

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