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'Bright Lights, Big City'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1988


James Bridges
Michael J. Fox;
Kiefer Sutherland;
Phoebe Cates;
Swoosie Kurtz;
Frances Sternhagen;
John Houseman;
Jason Robards Jr.;
Dianne Wiest;
William Hickey
Under 17 restricted

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"Bright Lights, Big City," the James Bridges movie of the Jay McInerney best seller, runs at such a low idle that you expect it to collapse in a heap right before your eyes. The movie is like a Porsche outfitted with a lawn mower engine; there's not even enough juice to get the machine out of the driveway.

The film is the record of roughly a week in the life of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), a young man with literary pretensions who has moved with Amanda (Phoebe Cates), his model-beautiful wife, from Kansas City to New York to become a writer. Instead, Amanda becomes the hot new face on the modeling circuit, and Jamie a researcher in the Department of Factual Verification at a Manhattan magazine that bears a close resemblance to The New Yorker.

The movie begins after Jamie's wife has unceremoniously dumped him, and he courts oblivion by plunging headlong into the extremes of decadent pleasure-taking. Because on one level the book is a kind of "Valley of the Dolls" for the culturally upscale, a sputtering, strolling bore is perhaps the last thing you might have expected the movie to be. As a stylist, McInerney isn't any great shakes, and his novel lacked the psychological dimension that might have made it something more than a snappy read. But the fast-track Manhattan club scene he chronicled held a kind of lurid fascination, and he did manage to capture something of the desperation and frustrated ambition behind the drug and disco nightlife. And that, at least, gave the story a personal urgency.

It's precisely this quality that's missing from the movie. Watching it, you never sense the filmmakers' attitudes toward their material, or exactly what conclusions they would like us to draw from the story. Bridges, who previously dove into the L.A. drug scene in "Mike's Murder" only to have the studio chicken out and recut it on him, hasn't sought to emphasize the antidrug angle of the story, as the makers of "Less Than Zero" did. But, avoiding that, he doesn't t seem to have settled on what to put in its place. And though this saves the movie from being solemn and preachy, it leaves us feeling that it has no real reason for being.

Much of the book's cachet derived from its being set within the sacrosanct halls of The New Yorker, where secrecy is a special mania. But in the film these scenes are the weakest, especially the ones in which Frances Sternhagen appears as Jamie's schoolmarmish boss. In addition, there seems to be no point at all in setting the film in the fact-checking department of this particular magazine, which, as it's presented here, is remarkable only for being more persnickety than other magazines. And so scenes like one in which Fox does the unimaginable -- snort coke in the men's room -- don't hit you the way they should.

Bridges and McInerney, who adapted the screenplay himself, do seem to have wanted to bring out the story's deeper elements, and if so, Michael J. Fox was the wrong actor for the job. Fox, who in "The Secret of My Success" showed a gift for light comedy, is too stylized a performer for the heavier stuff; he has no natural weight. In addition, Fox shows a reluctance to let the audience see him in an unflattering light. And so when Jamie is supposed to look ravaged by the effects of vodka and cocaine, we think the opposite -- that drugs and booze are the perfect prescription for looking in the pink.

Almost none of the supporting cast, which includes Kiefer Sutherland, Tracy Pollan and Swoosie Kurtz, seems to be working at more than half speed. Dianne Wiest, who appears in flashbacks as Jamie's dying mother, is the only performer who breaks through, but her performance seems almost to exist outside the context of the film. It's like a self-contained episode that has been slipped in accidentally, and as such, lends a level of emotional depth that doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the movie.

"Bright Lights, Big City" isn't a disaster; it's merely negligible. There's a fairly high level of craftsmanship on display here -- in Gordon Willis' cinematography, even in Bridges' direction. Some have suggested that because the book wasn't much to start with, the movie had to be lackluster as well. But the real drag of the film is that it fails even to deliver the small pleasures of the book. It fails even to be tawdry.

Bright Lights, Big City, at area theaters, is rated R and contains open drug use, profane language and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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