Thursday, 15 March 2012

(not) an unheralded masterpiece...

Less Than Zero (1987)
Dir. Marek Kanievska
Starring: Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey, Jr., James Spader

First things first - Less Than Zero is most definitely a flawed (indeed, in some ways quite a bad) film, but it is also misunderstood. Probably the biggest reason that it  failed to gain any kind of commercial or critical success at the time is because it is (like Bret Easton Ellis’ novel on which it is based, and American Psycho after it) first and foremost a period piece, something that couldn’t be obvious until later. In this sense the casting of Robert Downey Jr and James Spader (who give two of their most underrated performances) is good, but that of the top-billed Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz (neither of whom is as bad as is usually supposed) is inspired.
However posterity has evaluated him, Andrew McCarthy was above all an 80s actor, making his name in some of the most 80s of 80s movies; St Elmo’s Fire, Pretty In Pink and Mannequin among others. 
 Jami Gertz had a similar pedigree (and is actually mentioned by psycho Patrick Bateman in the novel American Psycho ), appearing in The Lost Boys and John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles as well as one of the era’s ('the era' = from the dawn of time until the present day) worst movies, the sci-fi/rollerskating drama Solarbabies.

Although Less Than Zero tones down some of the features of the novel (notably the homosexuality) and reduces the story into something more linear, the atmosphere of 80s drug-fuelled decadence is captured perfectly, and in fact heightened by some of the film’s worst aspects; like the glossy, empty stylistic cheesiness (the McCarthy/Gertz sex scene in particular, is spectacularly dated), the lamely staged night clubs and the TV movie-esque incidental music. The DefJam records soundtrack on the other hand (featuring LL Cool J, The Bangles, Poison, Slayer and Roy Orbison(!)) is mostly excellent, if equally dated, making Less Than Zero an imperfect but strangely immersive viewing experience.
 If McCarthy and Gertz are adequate, Robert Downey Jr gives a performance as the self-destructive cocaine addict Julian that was at the time, revelatory (his movie career to date had featured one leading role and a couple of smaller appearances, all as cocky, cheerful teenagers) and unfortunately proved to be prophetic. James Spader excels too, as slimy drug dealer Rip, one of many obnoxious yuppies he was to play in his early career.

Although in some ways Less Than Zero is less satisfying as a film than later Brett Easton Ellis adaptations like Rules of Attraction and American Psycho it is in many ways the most authentic recreation of the milieu that Ellis’ work was commemorating and it can also be seen as the dark side of the 80s teen movie – not, (like Heathers), a satirical attack on the teen movie, or (like the excellent River’s Edge), a serious indie movie disguised as a teen movie, but simply a glossy Andrew McCarthy vehicle that doesn’t shy away from the darker implications of the privileged lifestyle of its fashionable youngsters -  no bad thing.

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