a critiQal film review Less Than Zero (1987)

  • DVD

Plot: Clay (McCarthy) comes home to Los Angeles after his first semester of college and encounters some disturbing developments. His former lover, burgeoning model Blair (Gertz), has begun to abuse cocaine. But her addiction pales in comparison to the drug dependency of her new boyfriend, Julian (Downey Jr.), who's also Clay's childhood buddy. Clay tries to help them get sober, but the process is complicated by Rip (Spader), a callous dealer Julian is indebted to.

607 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 2s)

When searching for this week’s Retro Review, I again let Carmella choose…and she picked 80’s brat pack flick, Less Than Zero. Loosely based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction (2002)), it was right up there with films I don’t remember seeing from the 80’s.

With Robert Downey Jr having reinvented himself as Iron Man (2008), and his recent face-off against a James Spader-voiced Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), it seemed like a good time to go back and review their previous encounter in Less Than Zero. But, would this classic 80’s film manage to survive the course of time, or was this as overrated as An American Tail (1986)?

Andrew McCarthy got pretty popular in the 80’s, and it obviously wasn’t from Less Than Zero. Despite his voice trying to get into the act, he just can’t seem to lose the bland expression on his face, even when he’s trying to be all serious and caring for his friends. It’s like he’s wearing some sort of Andrew McCarthy mask, and it’s stuck on permasmile.

Jami Gertz (who underwhelmed in Twister (1996)), fails to impress in Less Than Zero either. While she seems to try a bit, she just can’t seem to get a handle on her character, and plays it all over the place. The viewer can’t really figure out what’s going on with her most of the time, and eventually, they stop caring.

Even though he’s third in the credits, Robert Downey Jr. is the whole show in Less Than Zero. His journey into drug addiction (which he was apparently mirroring in real life at the time) isn’t pretty. It’s been glammed up a bit for the film too, so it isn’t “real”. Despite that, however, his performance is impressive, and it’s the reason viewers will stick around to watch the entire film.

James Spader is also decent as the drug dealer who helps Downey Jr. on his way, but the main focus of the film is on Downey Jr., and Spader’s sliminess is probably best dealt out in small sequences…something Less Than Zero actually gets right.

Unfortunately, the film gets a lot wrong on the way. There’s just something about most of the sequences of the film that seem a bit off. The basis of the film – rich kids in LA get into trouble when they get addicted to cocaine – is a wholly American idea. And yet, Less Than Zero seems to have a French film feel to it. Full of lush cinematography and coloring, it seems to be an American film remade as a French film…and that extra filter just doesn’t work for this film.

Less Than Zero, judging just on it’s storyline, seems like it should be harsh and seedy, and yet it comes out as more of a lush cinematographic event. It’s romanticizing the story, even as the storyline itself is trying to convey the starkly dirty downward spiral of drug addiction. It’s an odd mix that just doesn’t work, and even a spot-on performance by Robert Downey Jr. coupled with a bit of finely-tuned slime by Spader can’t save this film from itself.

Obviously, the director had no idea how to treat the subject matter in Less Than Zero. Rather than using Downey Jr’s performance to produce a haunting, bleak look at drug addiction (aka something like Leaving Las Vegas), this film instead tries its best to make this just another teen flick, where the biggest worries are how well dressed their stars are, and what cool songs they can add to the soundtrack. It’s a waste, really, as this could have been so much better.

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