* * * - Michael J. Fox, Keifer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards; rated R (profanity, violence, drugs); Century Complex, Mann Cottonwood Mall, Mann 6 Plaza, Plitt Trolley Square.

Michael J. Fox gives the performance of his young life in "Bright Lights, Big City," playing an aspiring writer who has let personal tragedy drive him into a downward spiral of alcoholism and cocaine addiction.It's a powerhouse role that Fox more than lives up to, alternating between depressive down periods and drug-induced highs, trying to reassess his flagging sense of values in between. He also has a lengthy monologue late in the film that is very moving. If there have been any doubts that Fox is a talented actor of great range, "Bright Lights, Big City" should put them to rest once and for all.

The story has Fox unhappy in his job as a fact-researcher for a major New York magazine. He had hoped the job would be the ground floor of his writing career, but the only short story he's completed has been set aside by the alcoholic fiction editor (Jason Robards), himself a failed writer now basking in the glories of famed authors he claims to have known.

Fox's boss (Frances Sternhagen) seems determined to find a reason to fire him, but a colleague (Swoosie Kurtz) helps him out.

Fox probably wouldn't have such a hard time at work if he stayed home at night, but urged by a friend (Kiefer Sutherland) to explore Manhattan's night life, he spends each evening on into the early morning drinking heavily, snorting coke and looking in vain for love.

In flashbacks we learn about his relationships with his wife (Phoebe Cates), now a famous model who is more interested in her career than in her husband, and his mother (Dianne Wiest), who died of cancer a year before.

This all sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but Fox was a very smart choice for this role and brings with him a sense of charm that makes the character automatically sympathetic.

As it is, we feel for his harrowing situation right off because we care about him, and as the film progresses we are rooting for him to overcome his problems and get his life back in shape.

"Bright Lights, Big City" is loaded with wonderful character actors, many of whom lend a depth that helps the film enormously Wiest, Robards, Kurtz and Sternhagen in particular.

But there is no question that this is Fox's film, and the range of emotion he shows, the edginess that he brings to the role will doubtless surprise those who think of him strictly as Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly.

The film as a whole does occasionally trip over movie cliches and some of the characters, like Fox's brother (Charlie Schlatter), are just too broadly drawn. But for the most part, screenwriter Jay McInerney (adapting his own novel) and director James Bridges ("The Paper Chase," "Urban Cowboy") have successfully made an anti-drug film without letting it sink into complete hopelessness.

"Bright Lights, Big City" is rated R for language and drug use; there is also some violence.