07 May 2008

Filmbook: "Bright Lights, Big City" (1988)

Well, I promised the most awesomely '80s Filmbook ever, and "Bright Lights, Big City" did not disappoint.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, novel and film, covers a week (roughly) in the life of a young 20-something New Yorker named Jamie (played by Michael J. Fox) who works at a magazine but really wants to be a writer. Jamie is pretty miserable: His wife, a model, has left him, and he spends his nights alternately sweating over his typewriter and trying to enjoy wild nights out in clubs with his best friend, Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland).

I identified with this book more than I expected to, not only because of Jamie's job woes but because I always had the impression this book was about coke and debauchery. While there is some debauchery involved, it's very much a coming-of-age story, where McInerney take a character whose life looks perfect for about 3 paragraphs and spends the rest of the book dismantling that guy and that facade. I identified with Jamie more than I had planned on when I took him for just a rich cokehead.

The book is written in a way that (club references aside) is not particularly dated, unlike the movie which is HILARIOUSLY dated. Just the casting of Fox and Sutherland as best friends with their matching high-altitude hair is enough to seal this film in the Hall of Very '80s Things forever, without even counting Phoebe Cates' appearances as Jamie's model wife.* The soundtrack, the clothes and the 'look' of '80s New York -- things that were not specifically conveyed on the page -- date this movie in a way that is enjoyable, not annoying. It serves as a time capsule for the world that McInerney's book, published just four years earlier, tried to capture. I recommend the book because of its universality but the movie because of its specificity. And as someone who knows Fox from "Back to the Future" pretty much exclusively, I was impressed by the performance he turned in and the way he really made me feel for Jamie.

Despite how deliciously '80s it was, the movie mishandled something which I thought was very well done in the book. While almost none of the book's second-person narrative made it into the film, that didn't make me quite as irritated. Roughly 170 pages into the book, you find out about a Big Traumatic Event in Jamie's past. (Not the one I reference above.) When this Big Traumatic Event comes into focus, suddenly many of his choices earlier make sense, but there is hardly any foreshadowing to that event.

The movie reveals the Big Traumatic Event about 25 minutes in, and long before that you see strange out-of-context scenes that hint at it. They aren't too common, just common enough to really grate on anyone who has any sense. And their handling of it for the rest of the movie isn't particularly subtle, either, except for one scene that knocks it completely out of the park. Oh Hollywood, must you iron your silk dresses with locomotives? Still...

Filmbook Verdict: Read the book, then see the movie.

*Other favorite cameos in this movie: Swoosie Kurtz as Jamie's only friend at work, Frances Sterngarten (AKA Trey's mom on "Sex and the City") as his boss and, for about 5 seconds, David Hyde Pierce as a bartender at a fashion show.

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