Thursday, March 4, 2021

Reserved Seating Celebrates 1988: BILOXI BLUES & BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who want to see our favorite ‘80s everymen corrupted a little.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: We’re celebrating 1988 week with a double feature column on Mike Nichols’ WWII bootcamp dramedy Biloxi Blues, starring Matthew Broderick, and James Bridges’ addiction drama Bright Lights, Big City, led by Michael J. Fox. I’ve seen Bright Lights, Big City a number of times over the years, but this was my first viewing of Biloxi Blues since probably the early ‘90s on cable. Seeing it again for this column was like seeing the movie for the first time and I really enjoyed it. Let’s start with Biloxi Blues, a movie I know you really like and have written about in the past. What is it about the movie that speaks to you the most?

Rob: My love of Biloxi Blues goes all the way back to early childhood, when my mother introduced it to me as one of her favorite movies. It was also my introduction to Mike Nichols, Neil Simon, and Matthew Broderick. The truth is that, when I think of Broderick, I don’t think of Ferris Bueller. I think of Private Eugene Jerome in Biloxi Blues.

In terms of what stands out, I’d say it’s primarily the writing. Simon adapted his own play for the film, and most of the sharpest dialogue carries over incredibly well. I also love the staging, the long takes that recall a theater production. I love the camaraderie between the men and the realistic way in which it develops as the boys turn into men. I love the performances, especially Cristopher Walken as Sgt. Toomey. I just went back and re-read my piece on the film from a few years ago, and I’m ashamed of myself for writing with my critical brain rather than my movie-loving heart. I was still too concerned with not being overly effusive, I guess. The truth is that Biloxi Blues is one of my warm blanket movies, one that deserves a more celebrated place in the coming-of-age canon, especially for young men reckoning with the expectations of masculinity.
Did you have a favorite moment or line of dialogue in the film? I probably say, “Dying makes a man out of you!” at least once a week.

Adam: I’m not sure I have a favorite moment (maybe the scene where Sgt. Toomey fails trying to teach the platoon a lesson by stealing money out of one of their open footlockers), but I did think to myself watching Biloxi Blues that it consists of one good scene after the other. The character that sticks with me the most is Pvt. Epstein (played by Corey Parker), who is such a specific type of character that exists in life, but we rarely see in movies. He’s meek but crafty. A wallflower but entirely self-reliant. Also, as a Jewish person myself, I really responded to the moments where Pvt. Jerome thinks of his responsibility as a fellow Jewish person to defend Pvt. Epstein. It’s an unspoken rule of sorts in the religion to stick up for one another -- not with each other, but when someone who’s not Jewish is attacking a fellow Jew. This is the part of the movie that resonates with me the most. I also appreciate how ordinary so many of the men are in the platoon. It makes the story more universal that way.

This viewing of Biloxi Blues was especially entertaining because it reminded me how confused I was about the film seeing it at age 7. My memory is that Pvt. Wykowski had jelly in his mouth in every scene, Pvt. Hennessey went to jail for being out of bed after dark (it was as simple as that), and Pvt. Jerome went to a stranger to cuddle. One thing I love about 1988 movies is so many of them were modest dramas and comedies aimed at adult audiences. As a kid, I saw a lot of these movies before I was ready for their themes. I was expected to catch up to the movie. It helped me be more adventurous in my pre-teens and teens with cinema since I didn’t solely grow up on a diet of PG and PG-13 summer blockbusters and kids’ films.

Rob: I don’t remember how I felt about it when I was younger, but as an adult, I definitely admire the innocence with which the racier themes are handled. With Jerome and his virginity, for instance: The other guys give him a hard time about it, but he’s not the only virgin in the platoon, and it leads to a nice bonding moment with one of the other guys. That feels real, and it nicely accentuates the fact that their “war” was a lot more than combat; It was growing up!

Adam:
Have you seen the two other films in the “Eugene Trilogy” -- Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound?

Rob: I’ve seen Brighton Beach Memoirs, and even though it came out two years earlier, I saw Biloxi Blues first, so I always had trouble accepting Johnathan Silverman as Jerome over Broderick. That’s purely a childhood nostalgia reflex, though. It’s a fine movie, and I may give it another shot after we wrap this up. I’ve never seen Broadway Bound, but I can’t see why I wouldn’t enjoy it.

Let’s move on to James Bridges’ Bright Lights, Big City, starring Michael J. Fox and based on the novel by Jay McInerey. It’s the story of Jamie Conway (Fox), a small-town boy wrapped up in the fast-paced decadence of 1980s New York City. Recently separated from his fashion model wife (Phoebe Cates as Amanda), Jamie is sinking under the weight of his publishing job (He’s a fact checker for Gotham Magazine, which is just hilarious in 2021), a problem exacerbated by his addiction to drugs, alcohol, and his hard-partying friend, Tad (Keifer Sutherland). Will Jamie clean up his act, move on from his marriage, and finally write that novel?
This was my first time watching Bright Lights, Big City, and I really disliked it. It’s an abrasive, uneven, mean-spirited movie that — in contrast with Biloxi Blues — is adapted from the page with no real artistry or care. The movie has a notorious production history (original director Joyce Chopra was fired during shooting), and the end result has a distinct “cinematic orphan” vibe. It feels catastrophically unloved, like it was completed under duress. No one feels invested. Everyone is in a separate movie. It really rubbed me the wrong way.

Adam: Wow. I feel like I owe you an apology. I’m a big fan of the movie, but I’m not going to try to convince you to like it. I have an addiction to addiction movies for some reason (probably because I feel bad for people who are lost in life) and that plays into my appreciation of Bright Lights, Big City, which might be the most 1988 movie ever made. It’s hopelessly dated. What I like about the movie (and what keeps me coming back to it every couple of years) is Michael J. Fox. He was the first movie/television star I became a big fan of so even at age 6, when this movie came out, I was aware this role was a calculated move to play more grown-up parts. Even though Jamie’s a jerk, I’m rooting for him and that’s entirely because he’s played by Michael J. Fox. I want his character to get clean and turn his life around. Kiefer Sutherland is great at playing slimeballs and Tad is right up near the top of the list of creeps Sutherland has played. I think he and Fox have a good dynamic together, as do Fox and Dianne Wiest in her brief scenes late in the movie. The soundtrack is also fascinatingly 1988 -- just a mish-mosh of dance club and easy-listening soundscapes.

Rob: Absolutely no need to apologize, at all. You have as long a history with this one as I do with Biloxi Blues, so your perspective makes total sense. Come to think of it, there are thematic similarities that make this a really interesting double feature. I also totally understand (and often share) your love of addiction movies, but my issue here is that Jamie’s journey through that addiction isn’t clearly articulated. There are moments of character depth and witty dialogue that are obviously adapted from the novel, but they’re often stitched together in a way that feels rushed and atonal. It’s not that the character is unlikable; it’s more that I couldn’t get close enough to him to understand what he was going through, despite the family tragedy and failed marriage subplots layered in.

Adam: Are you a fan of any of the other movies (like Light of Day, Casualties of War, or The Hard Way) where Michael J. Fox went gritty? Is he too nice to pull off these types of roles?

Rob: See, I think that might be it. I’ve never seen those movies. I’m definitely going to check them out, now, because I’m wondering if Marty McFly is unfairly clouding my judgment when it comes to Bright Lights, Big City. Fox is a wonderfully charming actor. I believe he can do anything, including this role. I really don't think he’s the problem. But I’ll do a little more digging, just to be sure. Which one do you recommend I start with?
Adam: It depends what type of movie you want. I wouldn’t start with Light of Day. The Hard Way would make a great 1991 buddy cop double feature with The Last Boy Scout. It’s a similarly violent action comedy with a creepy Stephen Lang bad guy performance. It’s also the most direct bridge between Fox’s comedy chops and a movie with a more hard-edged tone. Casualties of War is a tough sit. It’s an especially bleak Vietnam story (directed by Brian De Palma) but powerful, too, and gets better with repeat viewings. The knock on the movie was Fox was miscast as a Vietnam soldier, especially going toe-to-toe with a maniac Sean Penn character/performance. I think the casting is just right because Fox’s dilemma in the film is that he’s the voice of reason in a situation where the rest of his platoon has gone insane. The fact that he’s virtuous and they’re evil makes for a formidable tension throughout the movie.

Let’s talk about F This Movie Fest! What movie are you looking forward to the most? Are you doing anything special at home to enhance the experience (e.g. food)?

Rob: It’s kind of still sinking in that I won’t be coming out this year, and I’m sure I’ll have a little bout of depression that morning, but we’re all doing our best to make it as fulfilling an experience as possible. It’ll just be a different flavor. It definitely helps that you sent me a Portillo’s shirt, which I’ll be wearing during the fest! Are we doing our usual Friday night pre-fest movie ritual? I hope so. As for movies, I’m most excited to tweet through Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which I haven’t seen in twenty years. You?

Adam:
We’ll figure something out for Friday night. We were talking about watching Coming 2 America on Amazon together and texting. I’ll probably pick up some Portillos for dinner that night, too. On the day of, I'll probably listen to a bunch of 1988 soundtrack music to set the mood leading up to the fest and I’ll swing by the diner nearby to get breakfast. Of course, later in the day I’ll order pizza because P.O.P. (Proof of Pizza). I’m most looking forward to watching Willow again since it's been a few years since I last saw it. It’ll be different this year, but still really fun.

Next week we’ll be back with our Pixar series and a review of Ratatouille. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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