On Screen: Bright Lights, Big City

PUBLISHED ON

June 1, 1988

Some novels are ruined when they are turned into movies. Some are improved. And some are exposed. The faithful, indeed nearly reverential film adaptation of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City does to the book what its critics should have done upon its publication: it lays bare its poverty of invention and characterization. The book has a literary and human flaw which I would dub the Mirage Effect. Whenever a character is deployed at the edge of the story’s action, that figure seems potentially interesting. We wait for the hero to come into closer contact so that the distantly observed character may blossom into a real presence, or at least a vivid caricature.

But then the hero does make contact, and the object of his scrutiny, far from blossoming, evaporates into a collection of stock gestures. We await surprises and all we get is a repetition or even amplification of what we have had before. A shrill supervisor gets shriller; an alcoholic has-been writer falls down, a drunken heap; the hero’s ex-wife, presented from the start as a vapid beauty, presents herself at the book’s conclusion as a total airhead, thereby justifying his dog-in-the-manger contempt for her. In fact, each character seems to exist only in order to justify the hero’s previous opinion of him or her. They are grievance confirmers, not true comic creations. Contrast Bright Lights with any of Evelyn Waugh’s novels and you have the difference between a cynic who thinks his cynicism is interesting in itself and a grouch of genius whose jaundice is merely the spark of his creativity.

But Bright Lights has an even more debilitating flaw. The hero is supposed to engage our sympathy as a talented once and future writer whose gifts are momentarily untapped. His emotional flailing, his drug taking and skirt chasing, his delinquency at work, are supposed to be taken as the unfortunate but understandable byproducts of a creative mind struggling in an inhospitable environment. But, amid the chorus of almost unanimous praise that greeted this book, one reviewer—for Playboy, no less—spoke the truth, though he intended his comment as praise, not blame: “a Catcher in the Rye for the MBA set.” Right on target. The giveaway paragraph appears when the narrator is considering a rare evening at horde (the narration is in the second person, as if the hero were talking to himself):

You hunt up your slippers and read the spines of the books in [sic] the shelves, determined to make a go of this quiet-night-at-home idea. A random sampling of titles induces vertigo: As I Lay Dying, Under the Volcano, Anna Karenina, Being and Time, The Brothers Karamazov. You must have had an ambitious youth. Of course many of these spines have never been cracked. You have been saving them up.

I submit that this is not the voice of a struggling young writer. A young writer is as hungry for words, ideas, books, and literary heroes as he or she is for sex, glory, and critical acclaim. Can you imagine the young James Agee “saving up” his reading of any of the above named books for a cozy evening at home? Young writers read on the subway, in the bathroom, in bed, on lunch breaks; in fact they read whenever they’re not writing or making contact with people. For them, reading is never a way to spend a quiet night at home but a submission to a battering at one’s heart or a window broken open onto spiritual countries that they cannot travel to first hand. But McInerney’s narrator values his library no more, but no less, than his fashionable sunglasses. Expensive shades. Highbrow titles. Cultural equivalency. The hero is a consumer, not an intellectual; he is a self-congratulating possessor of things, not a seer who peers into the heart of them. Perhaps a would-be artist who is a bourgeois at heart might serve as an effective butt of satire, but McInerney takes his hero straight.

The film’s director, James Bridges, amplifies the book’s flaws because he has been so scrupulous in trying to transmit the story to the screen. His reverence makes John Huston’s loving treatment of The Dead look like sheer impudence. Huston dared to invent little incidents in order to dramatize Joyce’s quiet narrative, but Bridges treats Bright Lights as scripture.

The story unfolds on screen almost exactly as in print. The hero, bitter and rudderless after his divorce, is shown neglecting his work (fact checking for a magazine patterned after the New Yorker ) by day and abusing his organism by night (snorting cocaine in expensive nightspots). He loses his job, tries to crash a fashion show starring his ex-wife, cries on a sympathetic coworker’s shoulder but is politely denied access to the rest of her body. Through a dissipated pal, he meets an undissipated girl and her receptivity encourages him to contemplate reform. Finally, he encounters his ex-wife at a party, recognizes her utter vacuousness, and realizes that he’s been wasting his time and his hip, ironical consciousness by pining for her. Understanding that he “will have to learn everything all over again,” he begins a new life.

But while remaining faithful to the plot, Bridges by necessity has had to dispense with the narrator’s monologue (though Michael Fox rattles off snippets of it on the soundtrack at lightning speed and with maximum slovenliness) thereby losing his tone of voice, his snide commentary on everything and everyone that comes his way, his knowingness about what kind of dope it is hip to take, what sort of angst it is hip to feel, and what sort of trash it is hip to be fond of (the New York Post). Whether or not you find this narrative voice smart or smug, it rattles the book along. And with this monologue gone, the audience is stuck with scenes that don’t work as sheer action. For instance, when the hero raids his former supervisor’s office at night to pay her back for his dismissal and the alcoholic writer staggers in upon the skulduggery, one expects a comic collision to occur, some sort of farcical armageddon that will end the hero’s relations with the magazine with a bang, not a whimper. But McInerney has no flair for comic preposterousness. His idea of comic climax is to have a helpless drunk do a pratfall. Since Bridges stages the scene as McInerney writes it, the effect is even flatter on screen than in print, because physical comedy on screen (or on stage) creates an expectancy in an audience that nobody reading a book need feel. A reader enjoying a comic novel may not even notice that he hasn’t laughed, but an audience that doesn’t laugh during a supposedly funny scene feels the silence hanging in the air like humidity that refuses to break into rain.

Apart from the lead, nearly every role has been well cast, and so, paradoxically, the film is damaged by the fact that the eminently suitable actors seem to be auditioning brilliantly with a makeshift script in the hope that somewhere off camera a writer is creating material worthy of their talents. Jason Robards is so superb as the has-been writer, so croakingly proud, so wistfully evocative of the Algonquin days of yore, that you keep wondering why the hero acts so disdainfully towards him. The old wreck has more vitality than the young pup.

The performer most hurt by the disparity between acting talent and the script’s insufficiency is the fine stage actress, Frances Sternhagen, who plays the faultfinding supervisor, Clara Tillinghast. She actually manages to pump some humanity into this harridan, and, in the dismissal scene, makes it clear that Clara isn’t simply outraged by the young man’s delinquencies, but is also upset by the fact that she can’t touch him emotionally with either anger or sympathy. McInerney’s script can’t do anything with Clara except dismiss her as a hag whose meanness is the result of a frustrated sex life. The actress reaches deeply into herself to produce emotional validity. But her author lazily reaches for the handiest cliche: old maids like to beat up on the sexy young.

Michael J. Fox was probably cast as the hero because his forte is energy. The director may have felt that this actor’s irrepressible buoyancy would keep the movie from drooping while the hero drugged himself into various stages of bleariness and self-pity. In this respect, the gamble paid off; Fox gives the film a sense of forward movement, even when the hero is at his most aimless.

But, on the other hand, Fox doesn’t vividly communicate either the hero’s inner commotion or the almost buried sense of intellectual distinction that keeps the hero just barely afloat. Fox is kinetic, but he doesn’t exude much intellectual heat. What Pauline Kael once wrote about the young Burt Lancaster—that he was moving only when he moved—is even truer of Fox. During his long speech to the sympathetic coworker about his failed marriage, he moves from chair to chair in her apartment, paces, gestures, slouches, shrugs; but he doesn’t know how to shape the speech in a way that would show us the pain behind it. At one point he idly juggles an empty wine bottle with one hand; the movement is so deft that it reminded me of Fox’s best performance—no, I don’t mean “Family Ties” or Back to the Future or even his good work in The Secret of My Success, but his forty-five second virtuoso stint in the soft drink commercial when he jumps out of a window at a gorgeous neighbor’s behest and zooms all over town in search of the soda she wants. Fox, at this term in his career, is a sprinter in more senses than one.

Many novels find their real audiences not with their plots but with the voices their authors use to tell their stories. The authentic lover of Don Quixote isn’t really responding so much to windmills and tawdry hijinks in filthy inns as to the autumnal crooning of Cervantes’s voice. Bright Lights, Big City, with its relentlessly hip patter, found its true audience among the same young professionals who read the new Vanity Fair or stay up to watch David Letterman.

But a film that loses McInerney’s tone may lose his audience, too. The audience I saw it with sat through most of the movie patiently, but by the last twenty minutes there was a lot of buzzing going on. Nobody I heard was complaining or talking back to the movie. They were talking away from it. They were searching for keys or wondering what was on TV tonight. The book is impertinent. Impertinent, as in insolence. The movie is impertinent, too. As in irrelevant.

Author

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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