DVDs: Bonus Points Movies

'Lights': Could Have Been Brighter

washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008

Two decades have passed since "Bright Lights, Big City" was released. So does that mean the movie, based on the influential '80s novel by celebu-scribe Jay McInerney, is: a. more intriguing now that so much has 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 today in a special-edition DVD ($14.98) that celebrates its 20th anniversary, certainly contains some dated details that tip it toward the relic side. (See Kiefer Sutherland's moussed-up 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 "Bright Lights" has to offer. 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 miniscule. Just watch Sternhagen when she has to fire the drug-addled Jamie (Michael J. Fox) and, her lips quivering, 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 track, many in Hollywood thought he should not have won. And 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 the DVD off until you know 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 a commentary by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who at least acknowledges that the original director, Joyce Chopra, was fired and eventually replaced by Jim Bridges, there is only brief mention of the problems that plagued the project. And no one even bothers to note that filmmaker Joel Schumacher and Tom Cruise 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 become 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 VH-1 specials, "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 (aka Bret Easton Ellis), please report to the more recent "American Psycho," stat.

Best Bonus Point 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.

Most Embarrassing Bonus Point: 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. But thanks for the tip.) Worst of all, both the menu screen and the DVD case get the title wrong, referring to the mini-doc as "Big City Lights." Oops.

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