Aspiring writer Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) is a fact checker on a high class New York magazine, but he finds life getting on top of him since he suffered two setbacks, so now prefers to lose himself in partying all night. One of those setbacks was that his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) has left him recently, leaving him living alone in their apartment without anyone to replace her, not that he feels he can move on anyway. Work provides an unwelcome distraction to his pining, and now he has a deadline looming which means he has to prepare an article by tonight or his boss, Clara (Frances Sternhagen), will come down on him like a ton of bricks...
Poor old Michael J. Fox, never mind the character he was playing here, as whenever he tried to show off his range in his heyday, there would always be a bunch of commentators complaining he was miscast in dramatic roles, and so it was the case with Bright Lights, Big City. It was based on Jay McInerney's novel, which was mightily trendy reading back in the eighties, and the author even jumped aboard the movie version to write the script, so only had himself to blame when it didn't take off the same way that his book had. With its tale of a young urban professional cracking up, the idea seems to have been to allow us to wallow in his misery until he shook himself out of it.
Thereby giving us a happy ending of sorts, and not feeling as if we'd wasted our time on something that simply wished to depress us for over ninety minutes. The trouble was, Jamie was such a self-pitying character that even when we got to the source of his woes, it was all about him with little time for anyone else in the film, never mind us watching this unfold, so it was a lot like sitting in one someone's psychology sessions and wondering where the part where it might have related to us came in. Another flaw was that we could pretty much identify what Jamie was moping about from the first twenty minutes, so were doing a lot of waiting around for him to admit to himself that he had issues.
One of the two things in his life that he could not face was the loss of his wife, who has now become a successful model and left Jamie in the dust, although she is kept at arm's length throughout the plot so that we can never see whether she was worthy of this adoration or if her ex is being pathetic in clinging onto her memory; sure, she played by Phoebe Cates, but the star gets almost nothing to work with. The other thing that he is struggling with is the death of his mother (Dianne Wiest in flashbacks) a year before, and every time his thoughts return to her he has to blank them with drugs, alcohol, or even literally running away when his brother (Charlie Schlatter) arrives to make contact.
This is all meant to tug the heartstrings, and there should have been the basis for an emotional rollercoaster here, but presents itself as surprisingly shallow, placing Jamie's worries on a dramatic pedestal that only he can really connect to with any effectiveness. Every so often James Bridges (making his last film as director) will highlight an eccentric moment which illustrates how everything that enters into Jamie's orbit becomes all about him, so all through the movie there are headlines about a so-called Coma Baby, an unborn child inside a comatose mother, which Jamie sees as a metaphor for his situation and to underline this, meets said infant in a weird dream sequence, complete with puppet baby. There's another puppet later on where he buys a ferret to put in Clara's office, and ends up getting bitten by the creature which then attaches itself to the crotch of his pal Tad (cheerful sleaze Kiefer Sutherland), though again, it all comes back to Jamie. I suppose when you do have problems everything revolves around them, but this can be alienating to everyone else, as this film amply demonstrates. Music by Donald Fagen.