Written by Bret Easton Ellis and Harley Peyton
Directed by Marek Kanievska
The 1980’s was the era of “Just Say No” in the war on drugs. Less Than Zero was the Hollywood answer to that largely ineffective drug-prevention program.
The film opens with the graduation of three friends from one of the most prestigious high schools in the country. Robert Downey Jr. is Julian, Jami Gertz is Blair, and Andrew McCarthy is Clay. The film then cuts to six months later as Clay receives a frantic phone call from Blair at the college he’s attending in “the east”.
Clay is coming back, having moved beyond the high school life, albeit forcibly in his relationship with both Blair and Julian since he caught them in bed together when he returned for a visit at Thanksgiving. They are still trapped in that world, trying to hang onto the feelings of self-assurance they had in high school. The “real world” scares them, while Clay plunges ahead. A telling scene is the one between the two friends in the park where Julian talks about going back and visiting their high school. He longs to go back, while Clay is looking ahead.
The opulence abounds as Clay rides home through the streets of his hometown, and then attends a friend’s Christmas party. This is not middle-America; these are some of the richest people in America. Even Rip (James Spader), the drug-dealer to all of these rich kids, can see that Clay doesn’t belong among them any longer.
It soon becomes apparent that Julian’s life has taken a much darker turn. At first Clay isn’t worried because “Julian’s been doing that since he’s ten” but soon he is seeing exactly what caused Blair to place that frantic phone call.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is really what made the film. I’d say in hindsight that he probably had a lot more intimate knowledge with the character of Julian than anyone realized at the time. His descent into the throes of addiction is frightening. Although we aren’t shown the details of what has happened between graduation and Christmas, the effects are apparent. He’s reaping some “tough love” from his father and his brother hates him to the point of attacking him after he’s broken into the house (by using a credit card at a place in the screen door where there’s no latch in one of the worst continuity offenses I’ve ever seen).
Julian is not one-dimensional either, as many junkies are demonized in other films. He seems the party animal at first, his drug habit and Blair’s recreational use of cocaine something abnormal in today’s world. Drug use seems to be you’re either an addict or you’re clean – there’s no real realm of recreational use anymore unless you’re talking about pot. Even there, so many people are afraid (and rightfully so) of workplace drug testing that it’s use has diminished.
You conned your way through rehab… you lied… you stole… and look what you’ve done to our family…
It also shows just how far drug dealers will go to keep a junkie hooked. As Julian is asserting that he wants to be clean, Rip has one of his toughs cooking up a rock in a pipe right in front of him to entice him to going back to prostituting himself for a fix.
There are many layers to Julian, and some of them are only revealed in the last moments of the film. I remember the first time I saw this, I was waiting for the payoff of the big build-up. I knew one of them was going to end up dead. It seemed to be the inevitable conclusion of the story, the question only was who it was going to be. I could see the scenario playing out with any of them ending up in the morgue: the clean, good friend who came back to help his friend killed by those he was trying to save his friend from which in turn motivates the friend to go straight; the (ex)girlfriend who’s recreational habit and bad choices put her in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the junkie who succumbs to the demons within him. That one of them dies isn’t really a surprise (or a spoiler) – it’s inevitable to the story and the one bit of predictability.
Andrew McCarthy gave what may have been the best performance of his career. He vacillates between wanting to walk away from his two friends to wanting to do anything to make it all better. I thought he handled the role quite well, making both extremes very believable. The one thing that pulled him down was Jami Gertz. I never thought much of her as an actress, and although this may also be the performance of her career, that’s not really saying much. She’s counting on her looks to get her through life and I don’t think it was really much of a stretch for her. Her voice has always grated on me and comes off whiny at times. One of the worst scenes is where she is talking to Clay’s mother after the two of them just were together in the back room during the Christmas celebration. She’s supposed to be distracted, but the way she carries herself is more like she’s too busy watching herself in a nearby mirror to be bothered listening to the very keen observations his mother is making about Clay’s life.
The lighting effects are excellent – from the scenes in the tunnel to the various scenes when Clay is driving around in his Corvette convertible as the lights play off of him and whoever his passenger happens to be at the time – Blair or Julian. Credit goes to cinematographer Edward Lachmann (The Lords of Flatbush, The Virgin Suicides) for using this effect almost flawlessly.
Kudos also goes to director Marek Kanievska. For a Brit, he did an excellent job capturing the affluence in this culture and the aimlessness of the kids there. That they are so lost once they have graduated high school when you would think they would benefit from every opportunity imaginable at their feet, conveys the feeling that money isn’t everything. He gets that point across in subtle ways, such as the parental figures in these people’s lives. Clay has suffered through the break-up of the family and his father’s starting a new one with two new younger sisters. Blair visits her father at one point and meets his current wife, someone who apparently is closer in age to herself than her father. It says a lot about what their future will be like. It’s really tidbits here and there, but they are important clues in the story that Kanievska doesn’t feel the need to hit his audience over the head with.
The soundtrack for this film is outstanding. Most noted for The Bangles’ cover of the Simon & Garfunkle tune Hazy Shade of Winter, it also includes songs by The Cult, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, Public Enemy, Aerosmith, Joan Jett, L.L. Cool J., Roy Orbison, Run-D.M.C., David Lee Roth, and The Doors.
The DVD transfer had some problems. It appears as if the print it was transferred from might have been a bit dirty as at times I noticed speckles. However, this is definitely a film worth viewing. It’s a good depiction of the problem of addiction, as well as the downside to “having it all”.
Three versions of the Theatrical Trailer
Five different TV Commercials for the film
Fox Flix movie previews