Bright Lights, Big City

Though I’ve known about this film since it was released back in the glorious year of 1988, and though I’ve been a fan of Michael J. Fox since the Alex P. Keaton days, I just saw Bright Lights, Big City for the first time last night.

If Midnight Cowboy is the approximate beginning of the era being chronicled here at Mean Street Cinema, then Bright Lights is probably the end. Based on the book by Jay McInerney, who along with Bret Easton Ellis was one of the “it” writers of the 1980s, Bright Lights is the story of young writer Jamie Conway living and partying in late 80s New York, all the while running away from his family problems back home and trying to forget about his wife who just left him.

The truth is, it’s really not that good of a story, and it’s really not that good of a film. I promised, dear readers, that I would not link to films that suck here at MSC, but after a night of soul-searching and deep contemplation, along with a couple glasses of whiskey, I concluded that for all its faults, this film does not, in point of fact, suck, and is worth your viewing and therefore worth a link.

Ends of eras suck. Late 70s NYC was a glorious hellhole (or was it a hellish glory-hole?) and early 80s NYC was a colorful explosion. But then, as John Lurie pointed out in an earlier post, Basquiat got rich, and then everyone else wanted to be rich, and slowly the whole damn thing fell apart and before you know it Times Square looks like DisneyWorld. As the drunken old magazine editor Alex Hardy (played by Jason Robards) tells Jamie:

“The guys that understand business are writing the new literature.  Money is poetry now.”

McInerney wrote that in ’84 (or rather, he wrote the version of it that appears in the novel – he changed it slightly for the film script.) The same year, Martin Amis published Money, his scathingly hilarious novel about basically the same thing – life in materialistic, vapid 1980s Manhattan. Both novels – and this film – give you the impression that by this time, the culture was in its death throes.

Bright Lights begins in a downtown club that looks like every other downtown club since then, with people mindlessly dancing to computerized synth pop. We follow young Jamie Conway through his life, from his boring job as a fact-checker at a prestigious magazine, his excursions out on the town with his wealthier friend Allagash, played by a young Kiefer Sutherland, to his troubles with his wife and his family, all the while consuming copious amounts of cocaine, which is always called some annoyingly pompous name like “Bolivia’s national export” or other stuff like that.

In fact, the real fun of this film is watching Michael J. Fox, arguably the most clean-cut teen star of the 80s, snorting all that coke. Back then, if I had to choose whether it was him or Kirk Cameron who would go all born-again retard, I would’ve gone with young Alex P. Keaton all the way, who just seemed ready to grow up to become Dan Quayle or Ralph Reed at any moment. (Look ’em up, young’uns.) If some enterprising young film editor wants to make a mash-up fanedit combining this film with Back to the Future, such that Marty McFly does a couple lines before he gets into the Delorian, please let us know. (Back to the Big City?  Bright Lights, Big Future?)

You can also see a bit of a precursor to Swingers in this film, with Michael J. Fox in the Jon Favreau role, and Kiefer Sutherland as the Vince Vaughn uber-confident alpha male best friend who’s always trying to get his buddy to get over that girl he’s still stuck on even though she left him. It has to be said, though, that Swingers is the far-better film, and achieved the near-impossible task of making 1990s Los Angeles look cool.

We eventually find out that Jamie is a small-town boy who came to the big city with big dreams, but who ultimately sees that life there is not as good as the simpler and more wholesome life he once knew. It’s a tale as old as Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and probably a gazillion other guys that New York City has chewed up and spit out over the centuries. The only thing that keeps it from being completely cliche is that it’s perennially true.

The New York club scene showcased in Bright Lights, Big City is basically the same one portrayed in American Psycho, which is set during the same period, although the film was not made until 2000. By then it was possible to romanticize it somewhat, so that nowadays nerdy little manosphere geeks watch it and want to be Patrick Bateman. But nobody wants to be Jamie Conway – not then, and not now.

New York City does not look very cool in this film, which makes me agonize about recommending it. But consider it the last page of the novel, or the last film in a trilogy like Godfather III, or the first film in a hexology like The Phantom Menace. You might not like it as much as the others (though in my view Godfather III is grossly under-appreciated) but it’s necessary for the complete story. Without seeing what New York became in the late 80s, you can’t really appreciate what it was in the decades before.

Review by Joey Mook

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