Less Than Zero is the 1987 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel of the same name, directed by British director Marek Kanievska with a script penned by Harley Peyton. If you’re not familiar with Kanievska, don’t feel bad. His most notable film prior to Less Than Zero was Another Country in 1984 with a much younger Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. It made some waves here and there, but Kanievska has been pretty quiet since his films, Where the Money Is (2000) with Paul Newman and A Different Loyalty (2004) with Sharon Stone, fell short with audiences.
I should mention that Bret Easton Ellis’s seventh book, Imperial Bedrooms which picks up with the characters from Less Than Zero in the present day, was just released (June 1st, 2010). Since all of Ellis’ books have been optioned, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the sequel to LTZ in the not too distant future.
Whereas some critics find fault, or manufacture it to serve their own sense of criticism for criticism’s sake, with Kanievska’s take on umber-rich post-High School graduates who ultimately pursue fleeting fame and fault in Southern California, the film is easily some of the best early work by James Spader, Robert Downey Jr., and Andrew McCarthy. Jami Gertz is a convincing Blair, the confused and direction-less love interest, not a far throw from her role as Star in Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys of the same year. What keeps the film from being just another campaign against drug abuse and reckless behavior is the underlying feeling that these are either reflections of people we know or a little closer to home than we’d like to admit.
As far as the original novel and subsequent adaptation by Harley Peyton, it is apparent that liberties were taken for the filmed version. But why does that continue to surprise people? I for one am not bothered by the naysayers, the book-o-philes keen on picking the film apart for straying sometimes in opposing directions from the novel; lets face it, books are books and movies are, well, movies. Sometimes they make cozy bedfellows, other times, not so much.
Less Than Zero doesn’t pretend to reinvent the ‘doomed if you’re in the company of drugs, dead if you do them‘ story. Most will agree this story isn’t new; troubled youth spiraling into various incarnations of the abyss, fueled by sex and drugs and more drugs. Yet there is something operating much deeper here, something endearing about the boundary of these particular friendships that are tested, broken and repaired in the glossy veneer of 80s pop culture. The music is loud and airy, the cinematography by veteran shooter Ed Lachman stands the test of time with stylish washes of reds, blues, and violets all the much better to define the underworld clutching for young souls. Lachman, as you might recall went on to shoot everything from the 1999 neo-noir film The Limey and Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides to Steven Soderberg’s film Erin Brockovich and Tod Hayne’s 2007 biopic I’m Not There. There are moments in the film that ebb and flow like memories of lost childhood friends, reminding us of the fragility of dreams and the disquiet of broken promises. Less Than Zero isn’t about preventing the disasters of youthful abandon any more than it is a commentary on the ills of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Where the film really shines is in the casual way drugs and money are used as bookends that keep divergent, if not superficial story threads from coming undone.
Finally, it’s the attention to the little things that keep this movie in our collective subconscious. When we flip through the screen listings of movies on cable and happen across Less Than Zero, something inside us ekes out, forms a funny lip curl, very nearly a smile. I can’t help but recall Ridley Scott’s brilliant sci-fi extravaganza, Blade Runner, when Blair and Clay stop for an impromptu makeout in the middle of a brightly lit, vacant intersection and are passed by a bevy of motorcycles. Remember the glistening black street of bicycles from Bladerunner?Small touches are what matter in this film, the use of dozens of televisions at a house party that serve as perpetual mirrors for a room full of young party goers or the white shirt with the red-splotch that might as well be the signs of Julian’s bleeding heart as doom encroaches. I’m reminded how attractive and repulsive are the spirals in life, how rock bottom can sometimes be comfortable and the end seem so far away. Eventually the fairytale wears thin and Julian’s addiction pushes him beyond the point of no return. What matters in the final moments of the film is whether or not he is going to take his friends with him and that is when Kanievska’s direction meets the fruition of a journey we the audience can’t help but remember.
What is most telling about Less Than Zero is the stuff between the lines, the notion of addiction as a person inside us clawing to turn bad decisions into catastrophe and how easier it is to see from a thousand miles away.