Less Than Zero begins promisingly enough with a cynical shot of the American flag and an azure Californian sky dotted with high school mortar boards – jubilantly thrown into the air by the latest class of graduates, three of whom we are about to watch disintegrate.
Unfortunately, by the time we’re 75% of the way through, the movie and its message have gone sadly astray.
College kid Clay (Andrew McCarthy) and his coked-up girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) drive through a glowing tunnel in Los Angeles and hit a coyote.
It’s another symbolic Bad Thing in their Christmas of disaffection, alienation and joyless hedonism.
Blair flounces off and Clay runs bawling after her: “Are we having fun? It doesn’t feel like it”. And it certainly doesn’t – neither for them or for us.
Less Than Zero is a frothing slurry of self-pity, tears and cocaine, all shot in candy colours, and one simply cannot quite muster the sympathy for the lead characters – all expensive victims of excess.
One of them, Julian (Robert Downey Jr), a whining liability to his family and friends, has blown $50,000 on coke. Not so much the Blank Generation as the Blank Cheque Generation . . .
The story is narrated in an anaesthetised monotone by Clay, back home in LA after four months in an Eastern University.
Bored by too much sex, drugs and conspicuous consumerism, emotionally cut off from his parents, he and his mostly faceless friends are nonetheless trapped on an existential freeway of meaningless parties, clubs, gigs and random sexual couplings.
Clay is an impartial observer rather than a participant in his on/off relationship with Blair. He casually witnesses Julian’s servicing of a middle-aged businessman in a hotel room to pay off his drug debts, the repeated rape of an underage girl staked out on a bed, his buddies mulling over a corpse in an alleyway . . . Unable to feel anything, he goes back East.
This screen adaptation bypassed the greatest strengths of the original 1985 novel by Brett Easton Ellis and one regrets the loss of the MTV-inspired rush of disconnected vignettes in which Ellis married structure with content.
Gone also is the unalleviated numbness which in itself was cautionary, and the movie topples into mawkish sentimentality.
Elegantly sleepwalking through the action, McCarthy comes closest to the atrophied spirit of the novel, although Downey won the most critical plaudits for his unshaved rag doll. Clay is straighter than straight in the film, his bisexuality in the pre-AIDS novel banished from the screen by the producers.
Less Than Zero finished 87th in Variety‘s annual list of big rental films for 1987. Its worth seems best reflected in its title.
Robert Downey Jr