As a college student hoping for a career in the "glamorous world of magazine publishing" back in the '80s, I was captivated by Jay McInerney's 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City, which depicts that world but tears away most of the glamour. Still, it made New York seem tremendously exciting.
The 1988 cinematic version doesn't quite measure up. McInerney may have aspired to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his time, the movie suffers from the same fate as the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby: miscasting.
Credit Michael J. Fox for at least trying. Eager to break away from his Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton fame, which was at its peak at the time, he took on the role of irascible, drug-addled Jamie Conway and did what he could, but it proved impossible to shake Alex. (He did better a year later in Casualties of War.) He simply doesn't look like he belongs. The required darkness isn't there.
Kansas native Jamie has arrived in New York to take a fact-checking job at a magazine very much like The New Yorker. His lovely wife (Phoebe Cates) was in tow, but with a sexy modeling career in full bloom, she's dumped him for the fast lane. Cocaine, very much a part of the New York social scene at the time, and booze are Jamie's solace, and he's on a self-destructive binge facilitated by his bar buddy Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) that's endangering his job. Add in the grief Jamie still feels over the death of his mother (Dianne Wiest, in flashbacks) a year earlier, and it's official: Jamie's a mess.
We ride along on Jamie's downward spiral, and truth be told, nothing much happens other than a series of increasingly mortifying benders. The movie's best moments come when the magazine's ancient and drunken fiction editor Alex Hardy (a great Jason Robards) takes Jamie out for lunch and basically kills any last shred of hope that the career Jamie has chosen will someday pay off. Also keep an eye out for a very young Alec Mapa as a sarcastic co-worker who adds just a bit of comic relief. Fox's real-life wife Tracy Pollan also shows up as a potential love interest who may be able to pull Jamie out of his potentially suicidal funk.
While the Jamie of the book elicits sympathy, Fox's Jamie ends up looking like an irresponsible mess whose unhappiness may be real but is no more tragic than anyone else's. No case is built for his depths of despair, and you can't help but hope that Cher will wander over from Moonstruck, slap him across the face, and tell him to "snap out of it." You'll appreciate Bright Lights, Big City for its time-capsule qualities (the '80s soundtrack is bitchin'), but that's about it.
Bright ties, big hair.