Alex Keaton, the wholesome brat from television’s Family Ties, is alive and well and snorting cocaine in Manhattan. Michael J. Fox has brought more than a trace of his beloved sitcom character to Bright Lights, Big City, the movie adapted from Jay Mclnerney’s best-selling novel about a young man’s temporary depravity in New York City. When the actor was selected for the lead role, “a lot of people thought he was miscast,” Bright Lights director James Bridges told Maclean's last week. “But I thought he was perfect. I felt very strongly that his character not be a drug addict with dark circles under his eyes: he’s one of so many young people who take various stimulants just to keep going.”
As it turns out, the hyperkinetic Fox is credible as Jamie, the Bright Lights hero who loses his wife, his job and his bearings in a world of nightclubs and cocaine. The actor’s familiar repertoire of tics and twitches creates a convincing impression of a man under the influence of chemicals. In earlier versions of the script, scenes of cocaine use were purged at the request of studio executives trying to protect Fox’s clean-cut image. But Bridges said that
he restored them for the sake of authenticity. “This film is distinguished by the amount of Bolivian Marching Powder people shove up their noses,” he added, using Mclnerney’s phrase for the drug. “The story is not about cocaine,” he added, “and it doesn’t glamorize it—but eliminating it would not have made sense.”
The great cocaine debate was just one twist in four years of convolutions during which Bright Lights went through two studios, five screenwriters and two directors before finally reaching the screen. Last year, after a month of filming, director Joyce Chopra (,Smooth Talk) was fired and replaced by Bridges ( The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy), who reshaped the entire project. Bridges started filming from scratch— not a single frame that Chopra had shot was used. He replaced half the supporting cast and rewrote Mclnerney’s script in a week, making it even closer to the novel than the author’s own adaptation. He filmed the entire $22-million movie in 36 days.
The result is an extremely faithful reflection of Mclnerney’s semi autobiographical novel, and that accounts for both the film’s strength and its failings. Like the book, the movie sparkles with wit and energy —and insights distilled from high-octane excursions into the night. But when the ride is over, all that remains is a hangover and an emptiness in the pit of the stomach. Mclnerney’s stylish narrative is a story all dressed up with nog where to go. That does
1 not matter so much in
2 the case of the novel, a 1 piece of sharply written I fiction that can be sa| vored as a slice of New 8 York City night life. But
a movie, especially a Hollywood movie, sets up certain dramatic expectations.
The story is straightforward enough that it fits neatly onto the screen with room to spare. Jamie, an aspiring novelist, spends his days as a fact checker at Gotham Magazine—a thinly disguised version of The New Yorker. His work begins to suffer as he spends his nights in discos, skulking off to sniff cocaine in washroom cubicles. After one outing that lasts until dawn, he admits in a voice-over that he is “not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning.” But neither is Alex Keaton, and that is the whole point in casting Fox—Jamie is just a nice boy having a bad time. He is bereft because his kittenish wife, Amanda (Phoebe Cates), seems to have disap-
0 peared into a modelling
1 career. And flashbacks g reveal that he is haunt§ ed by the death of his
mother (Dianne Wiest) I from cancer. Meanwhile, he is lured into irresponsibility by his best friend and worst influence, the devilish Tad, wonderfully portrayed by Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland. Tad tempts Jamie with visions of “dances to be danced, drugs to be hoovered, women to be alligatored.” The scenes between Sutherland and Fox have a powerful chemistry. With Fox as his diminutive foil, Sutherland plays his role with compelling authority. When Bridges took over the film and
conducted his purge of the cast, he said that Fox convinced him to keep Sutherland. “Michael said, ‘Wait till you meet him,’ ” recalled Bridges. “Then, when I had the two of them in a room together, it was obviously a great combination. Kiefer was quite manipulative. He somehow got me out of my seat behind the desk and sat in my place, telling me how he saw the film.” Bridges added that it was fascinating to watch the difference in rhythms between the mercurial Fox and the slow, deliberate Sutherland. “I had to speed Kiefer up and slow Michael down,” he said.
At the heart of the film is Mclnerney’s repartee, volleyed crisply back and forth between Sutherland and Fox. The first half of the movie is bracing, humorous and evocative. It captures the alien atmosphere of the cathedral-like nightclubs that were so fashionable in New York City during the early 1980s. And it offers an amusing glimpse into life at a stuffy magazine: in one scene, Jason Robards, giving a memorable performance as an alcoholic literary editor, stares blankly at the office water cooler and suggests it could use some fish.
While the supporting cast is uniformly strong, the movie belongs to Fox, who is in every scene. But near the end, as his character enters the last phase of his tailspin, humor gives way to serious drama—and the film loses its momentum. With Fox gamely acting his way through a series of histrionic confessions, the dazzle of Bright Lights becomes a tedious glare.
On hand to rescue Jamie from his dark night of the soul is Vicky, a virtuous blonde portrayed by Fox’s real-life girlfriend, Tracy Pollan, who has also played his character’s girlfriend in Family Ties. Bridges said that he stopped short of tacking on a Hollywood ending showing “the hero all cleaned up and living with Vicky and writing his novel.” Yet, even without that, the message is all too clear.
Bright Lights betrays its own insolent spirit by dissolving into a highminded moral epitaph for the 1980s. The film-makers have tried to have it both ways. As Andy Fogelson, the United Artists executive in charge of marketing the film, pointed out, “Take Alex Keaton from Family Ties, send him to New York, have his mother die of cancer, have him marry a model— it’s the same person.” Despite the movie’s best intentions, ultimately it resembles the drug that it implicitly condemns. Like cocaine, Bright Lights offers an invigorating rush of energy and a short-lived sharpness of mind, followed by a hollow craving for something more.
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