To fully appreciate Less Than Zero as a film requires the viewer to understand the source material—the nihilistic novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis about a group of vacuous young Los Angelenos having empty sex, empty experiences, empty everything.
The film, written by first time screenwriter Harley Peyton and directed by Marek Kanievska, takes the shell of that novel and ditches almost all of Ellis’s zombie-like characterizations to create something altogether different—something human.
Both the film and the book have become pop culture artifacts that many believe reflect all that was wrong with the ‘80s in terms of cinema and literature. As a person who has read the novel and (obviously) seen the movie, I can tell you that only one of these works deserves its ill-regarded reputation, and it’s not the film.
Sure, there’s a lot of flash onscreen—beautiful cars, fashionable clothes, and fancy homes owned by rich white people are in abundance. That upscale exterior led some critics to criticize the film for being as empty as the novel it was based upon. But as with most works of art, it’s what lies beneath what first catches your eye that matters. In the film version of Less Than Zero, there are real human beings onscreen with at least one pair of truly remarkable performances behind the garish glitz of the decadent youth enjoying the spoils of the greed decade.
Because the truth underneath is that they aren’t enjoying it at all. All of that artifice becomes a trap, which at least one of the film’s main characters will not escape.
Around Christmastime, college student Clay (played by Andrew McCarthy) comes home to his former best friend and former girlfriend burned out and shacking up together. While Clay wants to reconnect with his former girlfriend, Blair (a solid Jami Gertz), he has less interest in Julian for all the obvious reasons. Julian is played by Robert Downey Jr. in a performance that deserved Oscar attention and should have immediately made him a huge star. All his gifts are on display here—his charm, vulnerability, and that constant element of surprise that you always find in his best work—those little eccentricities that keep you off balance and make him so magnetic onscreen when he is fully present and has a part worthy of his talents.
Julian is Downey’s first truly great performance, but, if it has been noticed at all, it has mostly been in retrospect (although it is worthwhile to note that Roger Ebert, in giving the film a rare rave review at the time, singled Downey out appropriately). All of Julian’s outward bravado masks that he is a young man in great peril—his dream of starting his own record label has crashed, his father has cut him off, his best friend hasn’t forgiven him for stealing his girlfriend, and, most significantly, his ferocious appetite for drugs has left him with a 50,000 dollar debt to a drug dealer.
That dealer (“Rip”) is played by James Spader in a part that is utterly shocking in its soullessness. You could point to the slicked back hair (a possible nod to Pat Riley, coach of the L.A. Lakers at the time) and the trench coat he wears as obvious villainous affectations, but it’s the reptilian look in Spader’s eyes that makes the performance—the way his oily low-key gregariousness turns threatening in an instant despite barely changing the tone of his voice.
Eventually, it will be Rip who ruins Julian’s last ditch effort to get clean. Julian meets with his father (beautifully played by Nicholas Pryor) on his private tennis court (all the adults in the film look like they were born with a racquet club membership) to talk rehab, and the mixture of tough love and hopefulness in the scene makes what follows all the more heartbreaking.
Julian meets with Rip to convince him he’s worked it out—that his dad will pay down his drug debt. Either because Rip doesn’t believe Julian or simply doesn’t care (maybe both), he tempts Julian with a crack pipe, and Julian’s new resolve simply can’t overcome the allure of another high. “Are you ready to work for me tonight?” Rip says. And before long, Clay is pulling Julian out of a hotel room where he is performing a sex act for hire. The expression on Downey’s face is crushing—he is simultaneously blank and full of shame as he covers his shoulders with his trendy white shirt. This is the moment in the film where the movie earns its title. Where we find the place below rock bottom.
Clay rushes Julian into a car, they collect Blair, have it out with Rip and his henchman, and then they drive away from the city into the California desert—as fast as they can. They stop to get gas and on his way back to the car, Julian crumples to the ground. Even in this moment, Downey mines a bit of comedy from tragedy as he says, “I just had this uncontrollable urge to… fall down!”
This is Julian’s last ride.
At the time of the film’s release, many a critic lazily described Less Than Zero as a film that glamorized drug use—a charge that I found completely baffling as I watched a sweaty Julian with foam-flecked lips try to keep all the plates spinning while dancing as fast as he can into oblivion.
As the story goes, Less Than Zero had a tortured path from page to screen. Ellis hated the changes to his novel, and Kanievska’s original cut is said to be edgier than the film that was eventually released. While I would be curious to see what the director’s cut might look like, I don’t feel that it’s necessary. The film stands tall as it is, on the young, able, genius shoulders of Robert Downey Jr.
There have been other film adaptations of novels by Bret Easton Ellis: The Rules of Attraction, The Informers, and most notably, Mary Harron’s brilliant adaptation of American Psycho starring Christian Bale. Of the four films made from Ellis’s novels, Less Than Zero is the anomaly. However successful anyone might find Rules, The Informers, or American Psycho to be, they all lacked the one thing that Less Than Zero has in spades:
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.