Title: Less Than Zero (1987)
Director: Marek Kanievska
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, James Spader
Less Than Zero (along with films like Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) and St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)) was one of those 80’s movies I never got around to seeing when they were first released because I was too much of a kid when they first came out and most of these movies where directed at a young adult audience, I was not even a teen when Less Than Zero came out and it was a film that was all about sex and drugs, not exactly themes that a 12 year old would be interested in, well at least I wasn’t. But after I reached adult hood, Less Than Zero caught my eye and was always on my ‘to watch list’ because it was based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis, the author behind the novel American Psycho, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies. Bret Easton Ellis also wrote a novel called Rules of Attraction, which also spawned an effective movie in my book. But I had never caught Less Than Zero. Upon watching it, I realized that all these years I had been missing out on a beautifully dark film.
Less Than Zero tells the story of three best friends: Clair (Jami Gertz) Clay (Andrew McCarthy) and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), three privileged teenagers from wealthy families. After their high school graduation, things look promising. Julian is going to start up his own record label, Clair is interested in modeling career and Clay is interested in pursuing his college studies. As often happens with high school friends, life divides them, and each one goes off in pursuit of their life and their dreams. But when Clay decides to take a break from college and comes back home to revisit his two friends, he finds Julian and Clair sleeping together. This creates a problem because Clair was romantically involved with Clay. At the same time, Clay learns that Julian is knee deep in trouble. He’s not only strongly addicted to cocaine, but he also owes 50,000 dollars to his drug dealer! Will the trio ever go back to the way things were in the good old days? Will Julian ever cut with his drug addiction and regain control of his life? Will Clay forgive them for betraying him?
The film was based on Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same name.
Less Than Zero is a film about the nightmares and horrors of drug addiction. It is not unlike films like Requiem for a Dream (2000) or Spun (2002) in its negative depiction of drug use. It’s the kind of film that attempts to scare you away from ever trying to use cocaine, and I think it achieves it. I mean, who wants to end up giving oral sex to strangers to pay off their drug debt, raise your hands? I didn’t think so. It is interesting that the film starts off on high school graduation day, with the three friends looking as happy, shinny and hopeful as they will ever be. This stupendously shinny opening sequence shows us three teenagers who have their whole lives looming over the horizon; as does every teenager on their graduation day. On that day we all have our possible futures dangling in front of our imaginations, the ultimate truth of what we will end up being still uncertain. This is exactly what happens with Julian who has plans of becoming a music producer. Will it ever happen? Or will Julian end up snorting his future up his nose? When Clay returns from college, he is confronted with the ugly truth that all those shinny possibilities turned into empty shells of themselves, all because of cocaine. And the film effectively captures the cocaine culture of the 80’s. There is one amazing Christmas party sequence where everyone and their mother is snorting cocaine while watching rows upon rows of television sets and fake snow falling from the ceiling. That whole scene effectively captures ‘generation x’ also referred to as the MTV generation. These were kids with a dark uncertain future in their minds. They saw the rise of cable television, the internet, home computers, and music television. Nothing exemplifies this more then the party scene with walls upon walls of television sets. In a very visually poetic scene, all the television sets are reflecting images of everyone at the party, in some strange way saying “look at yourselves”.
The film benefits from having a cast of excellent young actors. They all give credible performances in my book. Robert Downey Jr. gives a very honest, charismatic and vulnerable performance as Julian, a young man trying to escape from a whole he has dug himself too deeply into. Julian is not a pretty sight. He is living in denial when it comes to matters of how much money he owes, and how low his cocaine addiction has taken him. Truth is his father has kicked him out on to the streets, and even his brother despises him. He has plans to open up a nightclub, yet no one, not his father, nor his uncle will lend him the cash to start it up. Of course they don’t trust him with money; they know he will blow it all away on cocaine. Cocaine has turned him into a nomad, steps away from becoming a bum on the streets. Actually, he sleeps on the streets on more then one occasion in this film. Yet, he seems like an intelligent fellow, who has sadly fallen into a trap. You can’t really bring yourself to hate Julian, I guess the feeling Julian elicits is pity. Enter Clay, Julian’s would be savior. Andrew McCarthy, an actor better known for his 80’s comedies like Weekend at Bernies (1989) and Mannequin (1987), plays the dramatic role of the concerned friend who is having a hard time accepting who his best friends have become. The question immediately arises upon his arrival, are they still best friends? Is the magic still there? Or has everything gone sour? Clay is constantly in battle between leaving his friends behind and continuing with his own life, or helping them out.
But ultimately, this is a story about rich kids who have thrown away the opportunities that they were born with. It shows us that wealthy young people can lead messed up lives just as well as poor kids can. I loved how the film captured that hollow empty life style often times associated with living in Los Angeles. The tag line for the film fits it perfectly “It only looks like the good life” which is exactly what the film shows us. These kids live in big expensive houses, with huge swimming pools and beautiful cars, but are they happy? Are their lives fulfilling? Nope, they live empty, fake lives. Jami Gertz plays a girl who doesn’t know what to do with her life come graduation day, so she decides to go into modeling. She lives in her dad’s house, but he wont even take the time to talk to her on Christmas day. He is to busy screwing his new girlfriend in his bedroom. He does manage to scream “Merry Christmas honey” from behind closed doors. Lots of money, but no love, no caring. Jami Gertz plays the kind of character who lives in denial as well. Her conversations reflect emptiness. For a while, when Clay first shows up, all she does is avoid the things they truly need to talk about, pretending that everything is okay, making small talk, always smiling that nervous laugh that looks like she’s hiding something much darker and sinister behind it.
The beautiful Jami Gertz
The film is a loose adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s book. Easton Ellis himself wasn’t too happy with this film at first, but he mentions that it has grown on him over the years. Can’t say I blame him for not falling in love with the first time he saw it, many changes where made from book to film. The book was much darker, Clay being the character that suffered the most changes on the transition from book to screen. On the film Clay is the clean cut goody little two shoes who is trying to save Julian, his drug addicted hopeless friend. In the book, Clay was more of an ambiguous character. In the book Clay is a user as well, plus he is bisexual. The studio decided to eliminate both of these angles because they needed a character that audiences could sympathize with and in the book, Clay wasn’t exactly squeaky clean. So they went and changed Clay around to appease teenage Andrew McCarthy fans. How conservative was 20th Century Fox about this films production? Well, here’s an example: The Red Hot Chilli Peppers had an appearance in the film as a band playing in a club, but the studio opted to edit their scenes out because they were “sweaty and shirtless”. Whatever! The film that was shot was far edgier then what ended up on screen. The film was ultimately taken away from its director, denying Marek Kanievska a final cut of it. This is text book behavior for a studio that gets nervous about selling a film with an edgy subject manner. They try to soften things up a bit.
James Spader, the drug dealer of the film
Still, even with all these production woes and script changes, I think that a beautiful film managed to escape into the real world. And in this sense, Less Than Zero is a strange movie. It’s a beautiful looking movie about some very ugly things. It’s deals with issues of drug abuse and empty lifestyles yet the colors are so vibrant, the takes and compositions so beautiful to look at! I would say that this is one of the best films about drug addiction out there, and one of the top films that capture the L.A. experience and all its pitfalls and dangers. Be ready for a film with characters that you probably won’t like very much, selfish characters only looking out for their own personal satisfactions. People who at one time had all the hopes and opportunities in the world, but let it all go for a quick fix.
Rating: 5 out of 5