Less Than Zero (1987) / Drama

MPAA rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive drug use, some violence, and language
Running time: 86 min.

Cast: Andrew McCarthy, Robert Downey Jr., Jami Gertz, James Spader, Michael Bowen, Tony Bill
Cameo: Brad Pitt

Director: Marek Kanievska
Screenplay: Harley Peyton (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
Review published January 22, 2012

less than zero movie posterAndrew McCarthy (Mannequin, Pretty in Pink) stars as Clay, the only one of three close childhood friends who leaves Beverly Hills in order to go to college.  Left behind is his aspiring model girlfriend Blair (Gertz, The Lost Boys), who ends up not his girlfriend when Clay discovers her in bed with his junkie best friend, Julian (Downey, Back to School).  Six months later, Blair asks Clay to come visit, Clay hoping to rekindle the romance, but in actuality, she wants him to try to help out Julian, who has struggled to make something of himself, racking up debt with local vice king Rip in order to feed his freebasing habit.

Many critics and fans of the nihilistic, postmodern 1985 Bret Eason Ellis novel of the same name railed against this yuppie Hollywood adaptation which simplifies some very complex characters, hypes up the glitz of the Los Angeles lifestyle, then goes too far in order to deliver a melodramatic cautionary tale not in keeping with the original work.  Nevertheless, a fine and very sympathetic performance by Robert Downey Jr., who would himself suffer many of the same ill effects of drug abuse as his character in this film, keeps this buoyant a good deal of the time, though never does it quite rise to the level of the heavy-handed tone of the material.

On the down side, Jami Gertz is way out of her league in trying to portray a coke-addicted bimbo caught between the man she has love for and the other she has pity for.  In key moments, she tries to act with anguish and despair, but it never does sell.  McCarthy is his usual stoic, psycho-eyed self, making his character a relative enigma rather than the anchor to which viewers should be able to cling to when traversing the seedy underbelly of the drugs and rock-n-roll of the affluent youth of Southern California.  Spader (Sex Lies and Videotape, The Rachel Papers), as the heavy, gives the part nuance and even a smidgeon of thoughtfulness amid the creepiness, but the part is relatively minor, with director Kanievska (Where the Money Is, Another Country) concentrating more on the lavishly wild parties and the not-so-steamy sex scenes between Clay and Blair.

Less Than Zero is a mixed bag, slick and energetic with a very popular soundtrack, but all of its strengths are mere bells and whistles that actually distract for the personal story that should have been front and center from the get-go.  It's a soap opera stuffed into a music video, and one's grasp on what makes these characters tick is hardly firmer than we had been coming into it. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo