The seductive lure of excess, combined with the naivety of youth is a dangerous, yet captivating mix. In 1985, a book of these themes brought commercial and critical success for author Bret Easton Ellis. Although somewhat overshadowed culturally by the following triumph of American Psycho, In 1987, the film adaptation of his seminal work tried to assess those themes on the big screen. In the peculiarly titled Less Than Zero.
We meet three high school graduates on the precipice for great things. Cray who is about to head to college and is dating Blair, an up-and-coming model. Along with Julian, who is going to make big bucks off a record deal (and does not need the hallowed halls of college). Sometime later, Cray returns home on Christmas break to see how his friends are doing. After cheating on him with Julian, Blair’s modelling career is not doing too well, but her cocaine consumption is reaching new heights. Julian’s record deal has not materialised in success and now he is on the verge of homelessness. Though still clinging to hope of that one final deal, with an equally alluring drug habit to ‘motivate’ him. As Clay spends his Christmas break among the tattered remains of his friend group, he comes face to face with the darkness and the tempting decadence, he wonders can his friends survive… literally?
Andrew McCarthy is a curious choice as the protagonist Clay, especially considering how straightlaced Clay is supposed to be comparatively, although I do kind of get that vibe from his performance. Personal problems aside, Robert Downey Jr. is a fine fit for schmoozing Julian. His desperation mixed with his determination, suffice to say, is just the ticket for this harrowing depiction, while showing off the actor’s talents perfectly. Jami Gertz also does her fair share in carrying the emotional journey of this film. The audience also gets to see the likes of James Spader as one of the underworld figures that Julian has become accustomed to hanging around with.
Some of the more shocking material of the novel is somewhat sterilised from the finished film, and the casting of Andrew McCarthy makes clear the producer’s intentions to cater to a younger market. As can be seen with its soundtrack, prominently playing A Hazy Shade of Winter by The Bangles, helps captures the thesis of the film and is a relative crowd-pleaser; further strengthening this hypothesis. Modern audiences might be drawn into Less Than Zero’s depictions of the chic 80s setting of L.A. and the setting’s gorgeous architecture, yet stick around to see appearances by a young Brad Pitt.
It would be redundant to say that the story is good, Ellis built his reputation on it. While the film may lack some of the more shocking elements, Less Than Zero results in an interesting little drama that is filled with the excess and tragedy of the affluent youth of the late eighties. Maybe due to the setting or its period or the talented acting, Less Than Zero retains interest. If you get a chance to sit down and watch, you realise that Less Than Zero is anything but the sum of its title.
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