Tuesday 28 November 2017

Movie Review: Less Than Zero (1987)

A coming-of-age drugs-and-sex morality tales, Less Than Zero oozes style but reeks of plastic music-video superficiality.

Classmates Clay (Andrew McCarthy), his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) were best friends from wealthy families at their Los Angeles high school. After graduation Clay heads out to college, Blair stays in LA to pursue a modeling career, and Julian dreams of successful business investment ventures using his father's money. At Thanksgiving Clay discovers that Blair and Julian are sleeping together, and at Christmas he returns home for another visit at Blair's request.

Clay finds Julian broke, addicted, and descending into a spiral of hard drugs supplied by slick dealer Rip (James Spader). Julian is still charismatic and dreaming of his next big venture, but running on empty, and owing Rip a lot of money. Clay reconnects with Blair and they rekindle their relationship as they try to help Julian break out of his destructive cycle.

A loose adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' celebrated book about life among LA's decadent teens, Less Than Zero is loud but exceedingly tedious. Self-consciously directed by Marek Kanievska, the film looks sumptuous, with every frame an attempted work of art, Kanievska particularly fond of symmetrical framing and glitzy hyperactive lights puncturing the LA nights. The music, for better or for worse, is the other notable achievement, Less Than Zero featuring a nonstop soundtrack of what passed for cool rock and party tunes in the mid to late 1980s.

Otherwise this is a story about teenagers attending parties and dabbling in unconstrained sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll dreams, but unfortunately the film drops to the vacuous level of its protagonists. Clay and Blair attend party after party, usually looking for Julian as he struggles through his latest drug-induced haze, only to restart the same cycle the next day. Kanievska may have intended the endless succession of parties with throbbing music and stroboscopic lights to meld into one long 98 minutes as a metaphor for lives being wasted on indistinguishable highs, but as a viewing experience, the film dances up a sweat in one place and gets nowhere fast.

Apart from the insatiable appetite for all-night parties featuring flickering mountains of monitors as the decor object of choice, the film struggles to reconcile the main character interactions with their age. Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr., and James Spader represent core and loose affiliates of the Brat Pack, and here they fail to convince as 19 year olds six months out of high school. The actors range in age from 22 (Gertz) to 27 (Spader), and the dialogue, courtesy of a Harley Peyton script, suggests thirtysomethings rather than spoiled teenagers. McCarthy comes off worst in his perpetual dreamlike state. Downey Jr. and Spader are suitably intense and slimy respectively, while Gertz is adequate.

With plenty of throbbing ostentation, Less Than Zero is not wholly negative, but it is less than meets the eye.

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