Less Than Zero (1987)

10 Mar

less than zero 1987

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wouldn’t be a fair critic if I reviewed “Less Than Zero” based only on the novel of the same name that the film is based on—so I guess in that sense it’s fortunate for me, because I hadn’t read the novel. But I heard that this film had very little do with it, save for its title and subject matter. I’m reviewing “Less Than Zero” as a movie. I thought it was a sad, effective portrait about how cocaine—and having more of it—can mess your life up. It features the same kind of rich, white, young yuppies seen in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which I thought was kind of terrible in the way that the characters were portrayed. “Less Than Zero,” in my opinion, is better because it shows that these characters actually know what they’re getting into and just can’t deal with the reality of facing the future.

The three leads of the film are high school graduates who are best friends and have grown up together in Beverly Hills, California. In an opening scene, we see that they’re happy that things are working out great for them. Two of them are going to school in Harvard; the other is being set up in the recording industry. The latter one’s deal is supported by his rich father. All three of these kids come from rich families.

Cut to six months later, when suddenly, things aren’t the way we saw them in that scene. Clay (Andrew McCarthy, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty in Pink”) has had his first semester at college without his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), who, as we see in a flashback, decided to stay because she “wasn’t ready.” We also see that Clay hasn’t contacted Blair or his best friend Julian (the one getting the recording job, played by Robert Downey Jr.) since he caught them both in bed together on Thanksgiving. Blair calls Clay and asks him to see her—she knows that he’ll be home to see his family for Christmas. So Clay returns home and gets reacquainted with old friends at local parties. He meets up with a terrified Blair who tells Clay that Julian is in trouble. She tells him that Julian disappears for quite a time and wakes up not knowing where he is. And now, Julian is in debt by the local cocaine dealer, a suave young man named Rip (well-played by James Spader).

Julian is hooked on cocaine and hasn’t had things going for him since he started with it. He’s been kicked out his parents’ house, lost the recording studio, spent all of his money, and is constantly in a state of confusion. He tries to keep his cool when around the visiting Clay. But Clay knows something is wrong and that Julian may be on the path to self-destruction, if he hasn’t self-destructed already. So what can he do? How can you get someone to stop when he has a drug addiction?

This is where “Less Than Zero” gets disturbing, but it’s also tragic and effective. I didn’t think the film was dumb or dull. I thought the story played itself out just right in how these characters are developed into people who started out with everything and could possibly end up with nothing if they continue along this path. “St. Elmo’s Fire” tried to cover this issue, but not to good effect. The people in that movie didn’t seem like real people to me. “Less Than Zero” seems more realistic.

The film’s performances are terrific. Andrew McCarthy is suitably nice as the young man who finds his friend’s life going down the drain. The beautiful Jami Gertz is quite good, playing a frightened girl who has cocaine problems of her own. But the best performances come from Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Downey Jr. gives a frightening portrayal of a young man who took the wrong path and is currently on the brink of losing everything he had, which could also mean his own life. And the best thing—his acting is so subtle. The less-than-subtle way of showing this character’s self-destruction goes to McCarthy’s observations of it. Downey Jr. does such an excellent job as this character that it almost seems real and in that case, frightening. Spader starts out as suave and cool, but then develops into an intimidating personality. But the truth is, he’s not really a bad guy; in fact, he’s kind of reasonable. We can see that in the scene in which Clay tries to tell the guy to lay off of Julian. He gets the response; “I’m not the problem. Julian is the problem.”

The film’s ending took me by surprise. I didn’t expect it to go the way it did, but it was like a kick to the gut. I won’t give away the ending, but I can say it is tragic. “Less Than Zero” is a cautionary tale of what can happen when addicted to cocaine (or any other drug, for that matter) and it works.

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