Monday, July 30, 2012

Less Than Zero (1987)

Sex, Drugs and Cheesy 80s Rock'n'Roll

- The large number of 1980s teenaged coming of age films like St. Elmo's Fire (1985) and The Breakfast Club (1985) defined a generation of actors as "the Brat Pack." While often addressing serious issues, the Brat Pack genre was known more as a genre of comedy and romance. Less Than Zero (1987) is often associated with the Brat Pack films because of its cast, timely themes and then-modern atmosphere. However, this film contains a style, subject matter and edge that makes it a unique stand-out in the company of John Hughes productions.

The story centers around three friends that grew up and recently graduated together in upscale Los Angeles, CA: Clay (Andrew McCarthy), who has moved onto college with a bright future ahead of him; Blair (Jami Gertz), dodging college for a budding modeling career and ever-growing drug habit; and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who has one foot in his grave and the other on a banana peel after getting in deep with the L.A. drug underworld. The three have shared good times and bad - but Julian's current situation tests the bands of friendship to the limit.

Less Than Zero is a deadly serious and cautionary Brat Pack tale; the strong sex and drug content within makes The Breakfast Club look like "Blossom." Themes prevalent in many Brat Pack films such as friendship, the responsibilities of adulthood and family troubles are present but the drug use and sexual content is depicted in Less Than Zero in a far more real and honest way than other Brat Pack films. The character and story of Julian Wells serves as a dark parable of what can happen when drugs become a problem in one's life (screaming for 80s audiences take heed!). Also, the high class L.A. backdrop makes for an interesting and noticeable setting, exposing the lifestyles of the rich and famous to contain such seedy activities as drug use and prostitution. The themes regarding friendship and the consequences of drug use seen in Less Than Zero are unique for an 80s coming of age movie but as often as the themes strike strong they often miss the mark. College, for instance, is portrayed in the film as some sort of Mecca were one must go to secure success, safety and stability in one's life and those who do not go end up drug-using losers.

Less Than Zero both benefits and suffers tremendously from its notable Brat Pack alumni cast. Although perhaps not quite as iconic as other "Brat Pack" casts, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader all have impeccable Brat Pack credentials. McCarthy attained official Brat Pack status by starring in both St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty In Pink (1986) but is hit-or-miss in Less Than Zero. As the main character, Clay, McCarthy convinces as a smart, successful young man and even has an old-school crooner-type (especially reminding me of Bobby Darin) presence that can be enjoyable. Unfortunately, McCarthy is often too dry and stiff in his delivery to really make the character work regardless of his screen presence. Jami Gertz (known for more quasi-Brat Pack films such as Solarbabies (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987)) is also somewhat convincing as the scared party girl but has the opposite problem of McCarthy in Less Than Zero: she is, more often than not, overplaying her part as the confused Blair. McCarthy and Gertz have a kind of bizarre chemistry together despite the hot-and-cold mix of stiff-and-spastic. Opposites attract though, I suppose. Also Brat Pack-certified is James Spader (from Pretty In Pink and Mannequin (1987)) who is perfectly cast as the evil Rip with his now-trademark creepy charm.

Many of the main cast members are not some of the film's strong points but if there is one reason to watch Less Than Zero, it is to catch Robert Downey Jr. as Julian Wells. Roger Ebert describes Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Julian in Less Than Zero as "so real, so subtle and so observant that it's scary." He is right, Downey took his performance to new heights of method acting; he would later reflect "I actually researched the role of Julian 10 years following the completion of the movie." Life would get tougher for Downey in the 90s but at one point during the Less Than Zero shoot Andrew McCarthy mirrored the role of his screen character when he actually had to bail Robert Downey Jr. out of jail when a night of partying went too far. One line in the film even alludes to Downey's future time at the Betty Ford Clinic!

The allusions to the real Robert Downey Jr. experience from the character of Julian Wells in Less Than Zero are staggering but this is not to say that his performance itself is not defined by some truly top-notch and amazing acting. Perhaps difficult to imagine nowadays, Robert Downey Jr. was a lesser-known member of the cast; his Brat Pack resume featured Weird Science (1985) and The Pick-Up Artist (1987) but did not compare to the fully Pack-vetted Andrew McCarthy or James Spader. Yet, today, Downey's performance as Julian is the most remembered aspect of the film. Downey's Julian is so destructive, selfish and lost that he should be impossible to like. However, Robert Downey Jr. plays him with such passionate care and nuance that Julian becomes the most real and sympathetic character of the film. Funny, tragic, warm and involved; Robert Downey Jr. delivered a masterful and altogether powerful performance that made the world take notice of his unmatchable talent.

Robert Downey Jr.'s performance of Julian is clearly the highlight of the movie but Less Than Zero is also recommendable due to its engaging visual atmosphere. Directed by Marek Kanievsk (Another World (1984)) and shot by Edward Lachmann (Far From Heaven (2002)) Less Than Zero is one of the most stylish films of the 1980s.The deep, bold color schemes are especially striking and many different camera angles and movements are employed to create a potent atmosphere. Less Than Zero really sticks out among the Brat Pack films in terms of content and theme but also in terms of quality and inventiveness of this visual style.

Of course, no 1980s coming of age film would be complete without an overbearing soundtrack. Less Than Zero is filled nearly wall-to-wall with music; memorable for its combination of the cool and the hilarious mostly then-contemporary rock, pop and hip hop tunes from the likes of Poison, The Bangles, Aerosmith and Run D.M.C. A particularly hilarious yet awesome few seconds from the underrated David Lee Roth and Steve Vai 80s collaboration is one of the most memorable musical moments for the film but "You And Me (Less Than Zero)" (written specifically for the film) is a textbook example of unbearable 1980s rock/pop. Future Hollywood heavyweight Thomas Newman (Road To Perdition (2002), Finding Nemo (2003)) adds a light synthetic orchestral score that adds a bit here and there, hinting at his future iconic style, but is also largely forgettable. One certainly has to take the good with the bad when watching Less Than Zero; this is especially apparent in the soundtrack department.

Less Than Zero is an enjoyable and interesting Brat Pack-era drama; however, its flaws operate in plain sight. The themes are poignant but also spotty, Robert Downey Jr. is amazing as Julian but the rest of the cast flounders and the soundtrack fits the times but can get very cheesy - Less Than Zero is less than perfect. Perhaps not reaching perfection, Less Than Zero is a unique and superior addition to the Brat Pack legacy nonetheless because of its ambitious themes and subject matter, striking visual style and unforgettable performance from Robert Downey Jr.  

CBC Rating: 7/10


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your statement that the rest of the cast flounders...James Spader was also excellent as Rip! Other than RDJ's and Spader's performances the rest of the cast does struggle.

Stafford Christensen said...

You're right - Spader was pretty much perfect as 'Rip.' I didn't mean to lump his name in with the rest, I was merely referring to the headliners McCarthy & Gertz. Way to stick up for Spader!