Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Less Than Zero: Robert Downey Jr. and His Demons

Less Than Zero: Bret Easton Ellis tells a tale of the disaffected Beverly Hills youth | A Constantly Racing MindLess Than Zero, A Most Depressing Movie

I t has been a while, but I was in the mood for watching a depressing movie.  Why would I want to review a film where the storyline leaves the viewer with no hope and in a state of despair?  Because, every now and then a reality-check is in order when faced with issues with the economy and other problems in the news, it helps to see someone’s life in worst shape than yours.  I decided on "Less Than Zero" for the both the story and acting, and for other reasons that I will explain later.  "Less Than Zero" is an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's book of the same name.  The film, "Less Than Zero" stars Andrew McCarthy ("St. Elmo's Fire" & "Weekend at Bernie's"), Jami Gertz ("The Lost Boys" - 1987), and Robert Downey Jr. ("Iron Man" 1 & 2 & "Sherlock Holmes").  This dramatic film follows three Beverly Hills teenagers after they graduated from high school in 1987, and the decisions they made that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Three years before "Beverly Hills 90210" debuted on television; there was Clay, Blair, and Julian, as three rich, disaffected teens whose lives are as empty as their parents are rich.  Upon graduation, the three teens discuss their post high school plans; Clay (McCarthy) plans for college, Blair (Gertz) is a model, and Julian (Downey) whose grades are not strong enough for college, plans on going into the music business.  Clay discovers that his girlfriend, after six months, Blair is now sleeping with Julian.  A year later, Blair calls Clays while he is away at college asking, almost pleading for him to come home for the Christmas holidays.  Clay, returns believing that Blair wants him back, only to find her concern is for Julian, whose life is spiraling downward in drug addiction.  Meeting up with Blair at a music-layered coke sniffing glamorous rich-kid party, Clay runs into Rip, a drug-dealer that the three of them knew in high school.  The drug-dealer Rip, played with a slickness that reminds one of a snake is James Spader ("Crash" - 1996), the star of another depressing movie.  Rip owns Julian for 50 thousand dollars, and Julian, not able to pay, works out a deal with Rip to have Julian work off his debt.

Less Than Zero explores the themes of drug addiction, cheating, love, sex, and friendship.  Director Marek Kanievska balances the film's heavy plot with a soundtrack that keeps the story moving to a hip retro-groove.  Memorable songs from the film are the Bangles' cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s "Hazy Shade of Winter," Poison's version of the Kiss song "Rock and Roll All Nite," LL Cool J's "Going Back to Cali" and Slayer's version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."  For a depressing movie, the film is not boring, the music and the films, action scenes, of Julian almost falling out of Clays convertible Corvette, the party dance scenes, Julian's drug addiction, and Clay and Blair's sex scenes, contrast with moving scenes between McCarthy and Downey's characters.

Less than Zero: Jami Gertz Robert Downey Jr Andrew MacCarthy | A Constantly Racing Mind

Each segment of "Less Than Zero" portrays the characters through several phases of development.  While McCarthy plays the cool aloof friend, whose character Clay, moves toward a caring, understanding individual who at a point in the film, declares that he will do "whatever it takes," to save his friend, Julian.  At the time, this was McCarthy’s eighth film in four years.  Less Than Zero is also McCarthy's fifth successful film in that period.  Part of the 1980's brat pack, McCarthy starred in St. Elmo's fire, a similar story of 80's university graduates trying to find themselves in the adult world.  Andrew McCarthy also starred with James Spader (Rip), a year prior to Less Than Zero, in writer John Hughes', "Pretty in Pink" and 1987's "Mannequin."  In "Less Than Zero," they play old friends, and the fact that they worked together seems to come across on the screen, as just that, friends.

Jamie Gertz's character Blair is the beautiful girl torn between Clay's love for her, and Julian's need for her and his addiction to drugs.  Gertz, the former "Square Pegs" star, continued to take on TV roles during the first half of the decade, while the latter half of the 80s, Gertz plays a beautiful vixen in both "Less Than Zero," and "The Lost Boys."  In 2002 through 2006, Gertz's popularity reestablished itself while she played Judy Miler along side Britain’s Mark Addy.  "In Still Standing," Gertz is a streetwise mother of two teenagers and wife to Bill (Addy) as they raise their kids with the tough love of parents who survived the 80s.  Still looking fabulous at 45, Gertz is scheduled to appearing the forth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, and the next "Mission Impossible" sequel.  Her pivotal moment in the film comes after having her loft apartment trashed by one of Rip's thugs, and after nursing the overdosed Julian back to health.  At another glitzy glamour party, Blair realizes that the path of drug addiction is as corrupt as Julian's.  In the bathroom, after watching one of her high school girlfriend's nose bleeds after snorting too much cocaine, decides to throw her stash down the drain.

Less than Zero: Robert Downey Jr.  | A Constantly Racing Mind

Robert Downey Jr. first appeared in a film written and directed by his father, Robert Downey Sr. in 1970.  The film was "Pound," and Downey plays a puppy.  Starting a serious acting career in the early 80s, Robert Downey Jr.’s career parallels his "Less Than Zero" film character with his drug problems.  A member of the Weird Science cast in 1985, Back to School in 1986, and 1987's "Pick Up Artist," Downey's career seemed to be leaning toward comedies.  However, in "Less Than Zero," Downey takes a turn for the dramatic.  Throughout the 90s, Downey performed in both comedic and dramatic films giving uneven performances, ranging outstanding and memorable to flat and disappointing.  "Air America," and "Chaplin," is notable for his eclectic performances, while having smaller less memorable roles in "Natural Born Killers," and "Danger Zone" in 1986.  Like his drug addiction problem, Downey would appear in the news for either the critical praise for one of his films, or for one of his several drug arrests and his ins and outs of drug rehabilitation.  Watching "Less Than Zero" with as a 21st century retrospective look at Downey's career, audiences will be amazed at Downey's drug addicted characters; Julian Wells and Sherlock Holmes have in common.  Downey's performance as the Rip's bitch in "Less Than Zero" makes this depressing film less than dull and truly compelling.

I wanted to see a depressing film that has a future, where the actors are easy on the eyes and the storyline is utterly depressing, but the filming and directing are captivating.  The other criteria for a depressing film, is that the characters, as James Spader says in the film, everyone is accountable.  The film is an existential study of responsibility and accountability.  The choices that Blair and Julian make, lead them to the positions that they find themselves in during the film.  Watching this film with my wife, we came away both depressed and empty.  Author Bret Easton Ellis, released his seventh novel on June 15 2010 and it is called "Imperial Bedrooms."  The book reunites the surviving characters from "Less Than Zero" 20 years later and examines the characters, and how they have taken different directions in their lives and not necessarily the direction, they were heading for in "Less Than Zero."

There is no rating for "Less Than Zero," available, but the film contains sex, violence, and drug use throughout the film.  I would advise an R rating for being real-life.

Movie Data
Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
Year:  1987
Staring:  Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr.,James Spader 
Director: Marek Kanievska
Producer(s): Jon Avnet, Jordan Kerner
Writer: Bret Easton Ellis, Harley Peyton
Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: 11/6/1987

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