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Michael J. Fox in 1988's "Bright Lights, Big City."

Bright Lights, Big City May 11, 2023


James Bridges



Michael J. Fox
Kiefer Sutherland
Phoebe Cates
Dianne Wiest

Swoosie Kurtz

Frances Sternhagen

Tracy Pollan







1 Hr., 50 Mins.


t’s been a while since I read Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel Bright Lights, Big City (1988). Its particulars have long since left me, but the fuzzy impression I still have lines up with the impression its subsequent 1988 movie adaptation made after I watched it the other day. It’s smart and efficient — has a certain elegance to it — without ever going anywhere particularly interesting.

It follows Jamie (Michael J. Fox), a 24-year-old fact checker at a prestigious magazine modeled after The New Yorker. The book and movie cover about a week in his life; it’s chronically in a state of implosion. Bright Lights, Big City starts a few months after Jamie’s wife, Amanda (a wasted Phoebe Cates), leaves him to pursue the A-listy modeling career rapidly ascending ever since they moved to the Big Apple. 

Jamie’s job is the only other thing giving him a sense of purpose. It also seems on the brink of confirming an untenability for him: the long hours and the hawkishness of the department head (Frances Sternhagen) rack him with an anxiety that’s wearing him down. (Jamie is going out more often as a release and also snorting up more and more cocaine to bring him the energy that isn’t there anymore.) Professional stresses don’t feel as worth it to Jamie as he had once thought they would. He dreams of writing fiction, figured this would be a way to “do his time,” but is now understanding that upward professional mobility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even if you’re talented enough to get distinguished jobs before you’ve so much as hit 25. 

About partway through Bright Lights, Big City, Jamie gets fired. An accrual of minor errors in a feature can’t fly at a magazine where a meeting will be called over the difference between the use of “precipitate vs precipitous.” It doesn’t matter whether Jamie probably wasn’t given enough time to pore over the piece, especially when the piece in question, reported in France, has such a steep time difference attached to it. Once the marriage and the dream job have been lost, it’s clear how much the pursuit of both were too-fast-too-soon responses to the grief borne of his mother’s (a too-briefly wonderful Dianne Wiest) recent death from cancer.

Though Bright Lights, Big City’s muted quality befits the sense of detachment defining so much of Jamie’s life, it also keeps us at a certain emotional remove from him. We have a better sense of the nature of his crash and burn than what it really feels like. Fox gives such a good performance, though, that the character feels richer than what’s actually on the page. The actor is especially stunning in a scene toward the end of the movie where he drunkenly stumbles through much of the stuff he’s been keeping internal and roiling to a maternal ex co-worker (Swoosie Kurtz, who I’m always happy to see) who has him over for a sympathy dinner. But outside of great work from its cast, Bright Lights, Big City, book and movie, makes a case for why the writer is so seldom the main character. C+

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