Less Than Zero

December 6, 2011

If you’ve gone to the movies in recent months, you may have noticed a series of anti-drug public service announcements that have been tacked onto a few major-studio releases.

These announcements come on just before the film starts, and feature a Hollywood star—Clint Eastwood, James Woods, etc.—briefly warning moviegoers about the dangers of crack cocaine.

Less Than Zero also carries one of these spots, featuring Rae Dawn Chong. Rarely has the anti-drug message seemed more redundant: Less Than Zero gives us better than 90 minutes of college-aged kids relentlessly self-destructing, primarily with cocaine. If anyone misses the point, they’re missing the movie.

Less Than Zero is based on the recent novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis took a bit of flak because some critics thought he was endorsing the decadent lifestyle of his dead-end kids. The movie, adapted by Harley Peyton and directed by Marek Kanievska, is at some pains to disapprove of its characters’ emptiness. There’s nothing attractive about these people; they’re a real drag.

The main action whirls around three friends from high school, now older and in more trouble, during a Christmas vacation. Andrew McCarthy plays a college boy, home in Los Angeles for the holidays; Jami Gertz is his former girlfriend; she’s now taken up with Robert Downey, Jr., the other side of the triangle. All come from wealthy Beverly Hills families, and all seem utterly lost.

The most immediate problem is Downey’s reckless drug habit, which has gotten him $50,000 into debt with a classmate/dealer (James Spader). McCarthy and Gertz aim to save him before the downward spiral is complete.

The movie is correct, I suppose, in steadfastly portraying these lives as unpleasant. But this method gives little hint of why people would behave this way; there must be something, even superficially, attractive about their rounds of parties, sex, and altered states of consciousness, just as there is inevitably the hangover.

Every now and then Kanievska gives us an image that suggests the tenor of this existence; when McCarthy returns home to his parents’ ludicrously lavish home, there’s a close-up of his hand dipping into a dish of red and green jellybeans, and somehow we sense the awful hollowness of this degree of wealth. However, there’s not enough to explain the basic unhappiness of these kids.

Kanievska, who made Another Country with some style, can’t really make style count for much in this film. There are a number of grabby, pretty compositions that suggest loneliness: Downey shivering on a rock at the seaside, or flopped on a lounge chair with all of Los Angeles spread out below. But after a while it’s just poster art.

The movie would click more often if it were more compellingly played. Gertz is pretty but doesn’t exude the kind of intelligence that’s called for, and McCarthy’s sensitivity thing is getting rather well-worn. Only Downey, lately seen as The Pick-Up Artist, connects; his hyperactive junkie, at least, has a measure of depth to his despair. The film, for all the appalling behavior it contains, needs to sink to his level more often.

First published in the Herald, November 8, 1987

Well it had Downey and Spader, anyway. The movie was a single-note stiff, and as for the anti-drug previews, I can’t remember them at all. I’m not sure the use of Rae Dawn Chong in a Just Say No ad balances the scales for all those Cheech & Chong movies, but you can see where they were going with that.