There is a romanticised allure of the big city; the national metropolises in your home nation can provide the highest highs, but also the darkest depths of living. With high concentrations of people in the concrete jungle, this is certainly to be expected. In 1988, a film adaptation of a prolific second person book, saw Michael J. Fox don the role of a struggling author, attempting to survive in more ways than one in Bright Lights Big City.
Jamie Conway works as a fact-checker (for a prestigious New York periodical) by day and a struggling writer by night. A lot has been on Jamie’s plate, after his wife, Amanda, recently left him (for apparently no reason) and his mother’s passing is reeling heavily on his mind. Still, his expensive habit of cocaine (encouraged by his clubbing buddy, Allagash) and engagement in trashy tabloids help sustain his existence. A lack of communication sends Jamie’s younger brother to the big city to find him. It becomes apparent that Jamie is hiding from something: while running from his past, will the culture of New York ultimately consume Jamie?
Unlike most other book adaptions, that I have covered, I have had the pleasure of reading the original back in University (Book on tape, what is the difference?). So having more than a working understanding of the text and the plot; I can report that a lot of the prose that made the novel so renowned is retained, but the crucial framing device had to be reworked somewhat. If you wanted a more straightforward way to go through the work, this might be a preferable venue to experience McInerney’s words. The film is also full of the more surrealist imagery of the novel’s wilder sections, and seeing the descriptions manifest into reality is enjoyable.
The cast is a dream collection of beloved names: Outside of Michael J. Fox, you have Kiefer Sutherland, donning the role as Jamie’s friend, Tad Allagash. Phoebe Cates is also here as model Amanda, and even a debut by David Hyde Peirce help bring the story to life. Though it is the casting of Michael J. Fox that is unusual. As a veteran of the comedies and light-hearted films, this role does make for a departure, but Fox adapts well in making the plight of the protagonist understandable. The soundtrack is also delightfully populated with choice cuts of late 80s dance tracks: With the likes of Depeche Mode and New Order blasting from neon-infused clubs and sophisticated house parties, helping preserve the nostalgic haze of the late 80s.
James Bridges ultimate film is an interesting project to tackle, the novel is ingenious in its use of language to draw the reader into Jamie’s perspective. Yet the film’s practical limitations do not stop audiences from onboarding the story. As a film, the interesting choices stand out in a sea of well-executed moves. Offering an intriguing indictment of the era it was made in. Bright Lights, Big City becomes a tantalising sight to behold.
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