The 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character. In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash. Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!
Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker. Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates). Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.
And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care. Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke. Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him. Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line. Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash. He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad. As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.
Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash. You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film. No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through. Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film. From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up. When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”
Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable. There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz). And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic. Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe. Megan has the patience of a saint.
There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine. (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.) But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.