Note: The review you’re about to read was written more than half my lifetime ago. I was seventeen (and a half!), writing for my high school newspaper — the Spray — as well as for a town newspaper that reprinted my Spray reviews. My underwhelmed take on Less Than Zero was one of them. I decided to revisit this justifiably derided 1987 melodrama on DVD the day after seeing The Rules of Attraction, a much more successful adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis. I found the film as dull as I had as a teenager, and on a whim I dug through my old reviews to see how the 17-year-old me had tackled the movie. Though cringe-inducing in spots — I’m not sure “partyhouse” is a word, or if it is, it shouldn’t be — it’s actually one of the least terrible of my teen reviews (though way too heavily influenced by Roger Ebert’s writing style, and more or less maladroit in aping it), and so I’ll let my younger self speak for himself. He had some decent points, and having just seen the film again, I agree with him; after the review I’ll tack on some newer thoughts.
Less Than Zero is a pale and bloodless little movie that requires loud party scenes, drug use, and bizarrely-lit sex scenes to get your attention. For a movie whose ads warn you to “Brace yourself,” it sure is unimpressive. This is a film that wants to be an indictment of the loose lifestyles of the teens of Beverly Hills, yet it has an amazing number of scenes that seem to condone those lifestyles. I’ll get back to that point in a minute.
The movie is based on the 1985 novel Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. If we’re to believe the ads, the mere fact that the film is even loosely based on the book should indicate the film’s impending controversy. You may be reminded of those old ads for “adult films” in the 50s that read “See it before the courts decide!” I understand that the novel, which I haven’t read but intend to, did honestly earn the label “controversial” and included many scenes that would probably constitute cinematic firsts in a mainstream major motion picture. You won’t find many scenes like that in the film Less Than Zero. About the only “controversial” aspect of this film is one of the characters’ performing homosexual acts for money to pay off drug debts. Hardly Disney Sunday Movie material, but in this day and age, are we really expected to have to “brace ourselves” for it?
The plot of Less Than Zero follows a small group of friends six months after their graduation from high school. One guy, Clay (Andrew McCarthy), has gone on to college and seems to be the one who’s most closely walked the straight and narrow. Another, Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), tried and failed to get a record company going and is now a drug addict. Clay’s former girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) has foregone college and seems to have a successful career in modelling. This happy group is rounded out by Rip (James Spader), a slimy drug dealer who is owed $50,000 by Julian.
The film revolves around Clay’s rekindling of his romance with Blair and his attempts to help Julian out of his addiction and huge debt. I just described the film in a nutshell, minus all the sleaziness and general depravity of the whole mess. Whenever the audience is about to fall asleep, the director throws in another deafening party scene or titillating sexual encounter. At times you have to deal with both at once.
Less Than Zero is also virtually humorless. When will writers and directors learn that if you don’t provide the audience with some comic relief now and then, especially in such a heavy-handed mess as this film, they’ll find something else to laugh at … and usually it’s at something they’re not supposed to laugh at? Take Julian’s withdrawal scene. It’s supposed to be emotionally shattering and a palpable victory for Julian. The audience I saw this with could only laugh at the sight of Julian sticking his face in his own vomit to vomit again.
Also, what are we supposed to make of a movie in which the only interesting characters are either scumwads or screwed up? You can feel a marked awakening of interest in the audience when Julian stumbles onto the screen, or Rip slides on with his “I’m giving you a break” routine. As I’ve said, you only really pay attention to the excessive scenes in this movie, where the director takes you and throws you into a house shaking with loud music and passion in the hallways. Depravity is glamorized in this film.
When Clay has to go into one of these partyhouses, he doesn’t want to be there. We don’t either, really. And if the film had been designed to promote disgust and anger in its primarily young audience, rather than the obvious awe and envy I could sense being felt in the theater … in short, if the film had maybe followed the book more closely, and shown more explicit depravity, then we’d have something here. Instead, we have a film that describes a problem it chooses to be a part of. Clay had a choice. He could, and does, walk out of those partyhouses. You have an easier choice: avoid Less Than Zero.
…Boy. Bossy little fucker, wasn’t I? I should also note that the main reason I emphasized the movie’s glamorization of its flashy, empty milieu was to refute the few critics who took the movie as a somber excoriation of the drug lifestyle, like Roger Ebert, who actually gave it four stars. I was spot-on about the less squeaky-clean characters being more interesting, but that’s no doubt because of three factors I didn’t mention above:
(1) Andrew McCarthy is one of the most boring actors on the planet
(2) Jami Gertz was, is, and ever shall be one of the most egregious actresses in the history of film
(3) Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader guarantee interest in whatever they’re doing. They have a few scenes together, and in the middle of this pallid cautionary tale you get to watch two young masters working on instinct and playing fabulous duets of need and loathing. Of course, watching Downey going through drug anguish years before his life imitated his art carries an extra frisson now. Spader, for his part, is never less than riveting despite hardly ever telegraphing menace. You look at him and you know he’s bad news even when he’s being amiable. Especially when he’s being amiable.
I didn’t mention the director, Marek Kanievska, who hasn’t worked much since (he took 13 years to direct his next feature, 2000’s Where the Money Is with Paul Newman). I can see why: every scene that doesn’t unfold in a place (club, party, poolside at night) that allows über-moody lighting plays out like an especially draggy ABC After-School Special. Cinematographer Edward Lachman, who goes hog-wild with his neon palette whenever the script justifies it, should probably get the true directing credit here.
Finally, Less Than Zero has the dubious distinction of now being the worst film of two unofficial movie trilogies: the late-’80s adaptations of Brat Pack authors Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), and the three adaptations of Ellis (Rules of Attraction and American Psycho being the others). It’s also reportedly the only place you’re going to see Anthony Kiedis, Flea, and Brad Pitt in the same movie; they all have bit roles, supposedly, though I didn’t spot them — feel free to rent the video to confirm it.