More noise than signal

Less Than Zero

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I went through a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis phase in my younger days, I believe prompted by the adaptation of American Psycho, during which I caught up with the authour terribile‘s debut novel, Less Than Zero. While undeniably powerful stuff, I found it just too willfully tasteless and nihilistic to be remotely believable. Looking back on it from my current state of apathy and cynicism, all hope and idealism having been beaten out of me between the anvil of reality and the hammer of experience, I realise that it was, if anything, too forgiving of its views on the rich and arrogant.

This phase did not extend to viewing 1987’s Less Than Zero, most notable these days for containing one Robert Downey Jr. Just as well, as it’s been adapted out of all recognition to be much more palatable, which might come as a surprise to anyone that’s seen it. Morally lax or desperate as this film’s characters get, at no point does anyone mention a 12 year old sex slave. Nothing’s unfilmable, true, but some things are better off un-filmed.

The basics of the film are easy to relate, at least. Andrew McCarthy’s Clay returns from the East Coast to his Los Angeles home for Christmas, but less to see his family, more his old friends. He’d received a letter from ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), begging him to come home to talk some sense into former bestie Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), these two having formed a loose couple since Clay’s departure.

While he’s been away at university, Blair is now a coke-addled model, and after Julian’s business ventures failed, he’s turned to increasing volumes of drugs, estranging himself from his family and getting him in deep debt to former friend and current dealer Rip (James Spader). Despite their best efforts, Julian can’t kick the habit leading to Rip forcing Julian to work the debt off through prostitution, from which Clay tries to extract him.

Along the way, Clay and Blair re-kindle their relationship as they tour the myriad bars and clubs of the eighties scene looking for Julian, filled with the rich and famous pursuing ludicrous hedonism, entirely detached from society.

I suppose, despite all the changes, Less Than Zero captures the essential spirit of the novel, in as much as it’s full of horrible characters being horrible to each other.

As for the changes, the softer treatment for the protagonist, along with the love triangle angle never feels particularly convincing, and the token attempt at pointing out that “drugs are bad, mmkay” could never come across as anything more than hamfistedly over the top.

The main reason this falls flat stems from Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, both of who you don’t see much of these days because they are awful at this whole “acting” thing. Downey, at least, has the charisma to provoke some interest in his plight, although at this stage of his career it’s not married to the talent and experience he developed in later years, so it’s still hard to call it a “good” performance from him. James Spader is as James Spader does, which is badly.

Perhaps the biggest turn off is the film’s boring moralising, particularly when you’re not on board with it. It treats taking drugs and promiscuity as inherently, obviously morally indefensible, and that does not sit well with me. If you’re not harming anyone, I don’t see why I should be harshing your mellow. For this film, the cause and the effect are inseparable, at which point it’s just an elaborately shot PSA film.

There’s some interest to be had here, I guess, mainly from knowing how the Brat Pack collapsed under the same strains as the characters do here, and in general as a capsule of ludicrous eighties excess, documenting abuses of both substances and fashions.

Not all that much interest, though, and the narrative and characters of the film do not hold up their end of the bargain. In terms of showing another grim side of Los Angeles, as is this podcast episode’s mandate, it’s a success, but that’s the only level on which that term could be applied. Not worth excavating from the vaults.