In 1985, Weintraub took the property to United Artists when he became chief executive there. The film needed a new producer and Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg agreed to do Bright Lights, Big City. They hired writer Julie Hickson to write a script but no one liked it either. Both Cruise and Schumacher got tired of waiting for a workable script but before they could be replaced, Weintraub left United Artists. The project became entangled in a complicated settlement with the studio and months were lost before it finally stayed at United Artists. The decision was made to shoot the film in Toronto and cast then-unknown Charlie Sheen in the leading role.
Joyce Chopra was hired to co-write the film with her husband Tom Cole, and direct the film. She had her agent send a copy of McInerney's novel to Michael J. Fox. The actor won the leading role and, at his request, the part of Tad Allagash went to Kiefer Sutherland. Fox's casting increased the budget to $15 million and principal photography was moved to New York City. The producers hired a crew, many of whom had worked with Pollack, while she brought along the cinematographer from her first film, Smooth Talk, James Glennon. Fox had to be back in Los Angeles to start filming Family Ties by mid-July giving Chopra only ten weeks to finish the film. It is rumored that she was indecisive, relying too much on consulting with Glennon and Cole, wasting time over a single shot. It was also rumored that she panicked while shooting on the streets of New York as fans of Fox disrupted filming. Chopra claims, "I kept insisting that we take time each day to give the actors a chance to find their way, in spite of the panic caused all around us by the morning calls from United Artists asking if I had taken my first shot yet. Working collaboratively with my cameraman seemed to drive the producers into a sort of frenzy". Studio executives did not like what Chopra was shooting and a week into filming, the chairman of the studio and the president of production flew from L.A. to New York to check on the film. Both executives had not read the script and were unaware of how different it was from the novel.
McInerney claims that Cole wrote all the drugs out of the script while Cole claims that he did this on instructions from Pollack who was worried that the film would hurt Fox's wholesome image with audiences. Cole recalls, "there was definitely pressure and concern at that time about how Michael was seen by America". The studio announced that "a more experienced director" was needed as a result of an impending strike by the Directors Guild of America. On the short list of possible replacements were Ulu Grosbard, Bruce Beresford, and James Bridges. Bridges received a call on a Friday that the film was in trouble, read the novel that night and flew to New York on Sunday. He saw Chopra's footage and agreed to direct if he could start from scratch and hire Gordon Willis as his cinematographer.
In seven days, Bridges wrote a new draft and got rid of six actors, casting instead Jason Robards, John Houseman, Swoozie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, and Tracy Pollan while keeping Sutherland and Dianne Wiest. The new cast members read the novel because there was no script at the time. Chopra had worked on the film for only a month, which Fox described as "a rehearsal period, though it wasn't meant to be". The strike forced the production to shoot in seven week and using McInerney's first draft, which Bridges liked the best. Bridges worked on the script on weekends with McInerney, who was enlisted to help with revisions. The two agreed to share screenwriting credit but the Writers Guild of America decided to give it to McInerney only.
The cocaine that Fox snorts in the film was a prop called milk sugar. The filmmakers shot two different endings - one where Fox's character decides to start his life all over and an alternate one to please the studio where he has finished writing a novel to be called Bright Lights, Big City with a new girlfriend who is proud of what he has written.
The film received mixed reviews from critics and has a 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "Bright Lights isn't an embarrassment, like Less Than Zero; it's a smooth, professional job. But when it's over you may shrug your shoulders and ask, "Is that all?" Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Bridges may not have breathed fire into this material, but he has preserved most of its better qualities. He has treated it with intelligence, respect and no undue reverence, assembling a coherent film that resists any hint of exploitation". In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Fox's performance, claiming that he "was the wrong actor for the job. Fox, who in The Secret of My Succe$s showed a gift for light comedy, is too stylized a performer for the heavier stuff; he has no natural weight. In addition, Fox shows a reluctance to let the audience see him in an unflattering light". However, Roger Ebert praised the actor's performance: "Fox is very good in the central role (he has a long drunken monologue that is the best thing he has ever done in a movie)".