Clay, an eighteen-year-old freshman, comes back from his first term at Princeton to spend his Christmas vacation with his broken-up wealthy family in Los Angeles. His former girlfriend, Blair, is now involved with his ex-best-friend, Julian. She warns Clay that Julian needs help: he is using a lot of cocaine and has huge debts. What follows is a look at the youth culture of wealthy post adolescents in Beverly Hills with a strong anti-drug message. Apart from the setting and the names, the film has very little to do with Bret Easton Ellis's book by the same title on which it was based. Written by
Jeroen van Bree <J.vBree@kub.nl>
You And Me
("Less Than Zero")
Performed by Glenn Danzig (as Glen Danzig) and The Power and Fury Orchestra
Written by Glenn Danzig (as Glen Danzig) and Rick Rubin
Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings/Columbia Records See more »
Anyone who wants to revisit the excesses of the 80's should definitely head straight for this movie. Every element of it is strikingly evocative of its era. It has all the obvious things like the absurd fashions, the brick-sized mobile phones, the casting (only in the 80's could a cast be assembled so wimpy that James Spader can convince as a tough guy!), and of course the drugs. But it also has the little touches that generate shocks of recognition, from the pink and blue lighting, to the opening Bangles track, to the huge banks of TV screens masquerading as interior design it will rekindle memories you never knew you had.
Like the central characters whom it both satirises and glorifies, this movie is beautiful to look at and obsessed with surface and appearance. "You don't look happy", comments Clay (McCarthy) to Blair (Gertz) at one point, "But do I look good?" is her rejoinder. This film, while not a happy one, definitely looks good. Some scenes, notably one of McCarthy swimming and one of a swarm of motorcycles driving past him, seem to have no other purpose in the film beyond being aesthetically pleasing. The film's visual imagery is indeed so striking that when the makers of The Simpsons wanted to include a parody musical "Kickin' It - A Musical Journey Through the Betty Ford Clinic" they drew the leading man (playing a celebrity busted for drug offences) dressed in the distinctive black and white suit worn by Robert Downey Jnr during the first party scene, presumably confident that it would be recognised.
But despite its emphasis on visual style, Less Than Zero does have some substance underneath, most of it concentrated in Robert Downey Jnr's acute portrayal of the spoilt, self-destructive anti-hero Julian. It is easy to say with hindsight that playing a drug-addled and desperate man was never going to be a huge stretch for Downey, and plenty of critics have done so. However, regardless of the reasons behind it's proficiency, his performance has a depth and range that gives it an air of authenticity rare in a genre of character which traditionally leads actors into either an excess of hamminess or a glazed vacancy. Downey's Julian swings between easy-going charm, raw vulnerability, spoilt petulance and an aggressive unpredictability in a way which allows the audience to sympathise both with his family's angry hand-washing and his friend's reluctant love for him and determination to save him from himself.
The role is a difficult juggling act and luckily Downey has the perfect foil in Spader's subtle turn as the cynically manipulative dealer, Rip. The film really comes alive in the exchanges between the two, Julian puppy-ishly optimistic that he can sort his problems out and Rip cruelly cutting through his confidence to the reveal the self-deception at its heart, chipping away at Julian's fragile self-esteem in order to control him.
Unfortunately, the film rather lets itself down with a closing few minutes that seem to drag on for at least an hour. It's lazy, contrived and unlikely ending is more of a get out clause than a culmination and appears to have been written purely as a way of ending the film rather than as its logical conclusion. Despite this fairly major flaw Less Than Zero is entertaining, with enough snappy dialogue, varied music and amusingly dressed extras to counteract its deficiencies.
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