'Bright Lights, Big City' is a biting backlash to the hip world of downtown discos and cocaine. It's a bleak, pent-up movie, with its hero, played by Michael J. Fox, ready to explode. He's bleary-eyed and so beat-up emotionally that nearly every scene seems to be the one in which he must collapse.
But Fox's Jamie keeps coming back for more, and, as directed by James Bridges, there's more than a little resemblance between this character and Holden Caulfield, who in 1951 became the spokesman for another generation through the pages of the classic, 'Catcher in the Rye.'
Jamie seems to have a lot in common with that earlier character: He stands pat in the middle of a blizzard of confusion and hurt. He seems resigned to fail at achieving success ala 1980s, but equally as unsure about how to move beyond his particular time and place.
Fox plays Jamie with almost inarticulate intensity; his eyes tell us everything about his alternate highs and lows. But he's too much, and Jamie's pain would be cloying if it weren't for the other lost souls - save one, his mother, played by talented actress Dianne Wiest -- who populate his high life and tortured memories.
'Bright Lights, Big City' begins somewhere in the middle of a traumatic period in Jamie's life: his mother has been dead a year and his wife has been gone for about a month, presumably modeling but in reality starting a new life without him. Jamie's learned a good bit about partying since orbiting around his rising-star model wife, played by Phoebe Cates. The partying has replaced his writing, and the cocaine and booze have gotten in the way of his boring job as a fact checker at a prestigious magazine in New York.
His best friend, a cynical and shallow playboy played by Kiefer Sutherland, is only too happy to escort Jamie down the road to ruin. The older generation seem little better at guiding Jamie out of his pain; a boozy old writer at his magazine, played by Sam Robards, can do little more than regret the passage of the giants of literature from the 1930s and 1940s, and a stiff and unfeeling boss, played by Frances Sternhagen, recognizes Jamie's difficulties and throws roadblacks to make his rocky journey even rougher.
Along comes a smart and straight young graduate student named Vicky, played by Fox's real-life girlfriend Tracy Pollan, but even she seems unable to provide anything more than a single evening free of drugs.
Mostly, Jamie's caught up in his mother's death, and how it seemed so close to his own problem facing life; he begins identifying with a 'coma baby' written about in a city tabloid. The baby's mother is doomed, but the baby may not make it either. But just when he seems to be seeing through the symbolism of his unhappiness, he gets high and his cocaine-addled brain seems an excuse for almost every form of bad behavior.
Such is the life of a drug-dependent, sensitive artist of the 80s, director Bridges and screenwriter Jay McInerney seem to be telling us (the movie is based on McInerney's hip best-seller of the same name). 'Bright Lights, Big City' offers no message of redemption, only a mirror on a mixed-up, troubled present.
Jamie seems more determined by movie's end, but hardly sober: His moment of truth comes in the middle of a nose bleed at a crowded, trendy party. We're never totally convinced that Jamie's revelation, celebrated at the edge of the Hudson River with a fresh-baked loaf of bread, is anything more than a quiet period between highs.
Jamie may be less articulate and inspired than Holden Caulfield, but he seems as genuine a spokesman for his time.