Now that there’s word of a remake covering, let’s take a second look at the first version. When a coke-addled Michael J. Fox dreams that a coma baby he saw on the cover of The New York Post talks to him, the conclusion is inescapable: the baby looks older than Fox. The central irony undergirding Bright Lights, Big City is how the 1988 adaptation deserves Fox’s lightweight performance. It’s a shallow adaptation of a shallow book without the saving grace of actors and situations that might deepen its sitcom vaporousness. Thanks to its casting budget, A-list supporting actors flit past, like waiters in a restaurant dining room: Jason Robards (amusing as a sozzled editor), Swoosie Kurtz, Dianne Wiest, William Hickey and John Houseman (looking more strung out than Fox). I don’t remember much about Jay McInerney’s novel twenty years after reading it except its reveling in the Absolut-fueled “decadence” of early eighties proto-yuppies. It had a you-are-there urgency.
Not the movie. It squeaked through all kinds of cogs to get made in the first place. Studio execs and writer-director James Bridges were aware of the thin ice on which they tread. Fox, hot after Back to the Future and The Secret of My Success (remember that one?), couldn’t be seen actually snorting coke. There were quarrels. Bridges won. We got our Fox coke-snorting shots after all. But this is the sort of movie in which in its last moments the hero munches on a loaf of bread and gazes at the WTC towers while in voice-over he says “You’ll have to go slowly. You’ll have to learn everything all over again,” oblivious to the easy, mocking irony of Donald Fagen’s cover of the title song. It even misses the self-mocking inflections from the novel’s most notable characteristic: its use of the second person point of view, as uncommon in 1984 as it is now. The music, provided by MAARS, New Order, and Prince among others, has no resonance; it could be traffic noise. Two performers escaped unscathed: Kiefer Sutherland confirmed his status as the go-to guy for smarm; and Bryan Ferry, who scored his only American Top 40 hit thanks to the exposure.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, less harsh on Fox than I am, is worth a read.