Less Than Zero is available to rent or buy now on Amazon Prime.
Not all Christmas movies are happy, and not all Christmas movies are wrapped in fairy lights and tinsel. Some Christmas movies offer us a different picture of the festive holidays, as they explore fear, addiction, pain or trauma. Of course, these movies could hardly be described as feel-good Christmas films. Nonetheless, these dramas are essential when exploring Christmas in all its guises and forms. Less Than Zero is one of these movies.
Long before The Basketball Diaries, Beautiful Boy or A Million Little Pieces, there was the Brett Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero. First published in 1985, the novel was Easton Ellis’ first at the tender age of 21; its release, marking the start of a writing career that would bring us American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park. However, despite the success of Less Than Zero in print, the 1987 film adaptation all but vanished into the mists of cinematic history. However, Marek Kanievska’s adaptation boasted an impressive cast, including Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader. So why did the movie receive such mixed reviews on its release? And why has it all but vanished in the years since?
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Before I delve into the lasting legacy of Less Than Zero, let me start by taking you back to the cinematic landscape of the mid-80s teen drama. By the mid-1980s, a new brat pack had emerged in Hollywood thanks to John Hughes, Frances Ford Coppola, Amy Pickering and Joel Schumacher. This newly formed ensemble of talent found a voice through heartfelt teen dramas and comedies ranging from The Breakfast Club to Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Their often middle-class characters, reflecting a decade where fashion and music ruled, money meant power, and beautiful young people owned the big screen. However, while these new brat pack movies explored coming-of-age themes, youth subcultures and adolescent love in abundance, one subject remained largely hidden; the increasing use of cocaine and heroin.
By 1985 the flawed ‘Just Say No’ drugs campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan had gained worldwide attention. Yet, despite T.V. slots and a famous Grange Hill storyline here in the U.K., the ‘Just Say No’ campaign had mainly remained absent from films. This was for a good reason, as while ‘Just Say No’ embraced a simple message for kids, the reality of drugs use was far more complicated for many teens. In reality, 80s drugs use reflected a growing wealth divide and a slow-burning disillusionment among young people in a growing culture of image and wealth.
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In choosing to forgo the trappings of the book, Kanievska’s Less than Zero was the first major film to try and reflect this reality. Here, we meet Clay (Andrew McCarthy), a straight-A student who has recently left his affluent West Coast home and friends for college. However, when Clay is asked to return to Los Angeles at Christmas by his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz), he decides to make the trip despite reservations.
Clay is immediately thrust back into the fake, and drug embued culture of the wealthy L.A. suburbs on his return. However, as he travels from one pretentious party to the next, he quickly discovers that Julian’s cocaine use is out of control. His father’s financial support, all but gone as his dealer, Rip (James Spader), extends his credit in return for favours. But as Clay becomes wrapped in Julian’s drug-fuelled decline, he must decide whether to support and help his childhood friend or once again escape the madness of the L.A. life he chose to leave.
Much of the criticism levelled at Less Than Zero came from the film’s upper-class depiction of addiction. After all, surely addiction only affected those in poverty, not the shiny happy youngsters of the 1980s capitalist dream. And yet, it’s the affluence on display that makes Less Than Zero so powerful as a dissection of 80s wealth, privilege and addiction. While at the same time marking out its place as a bridge between the mid-1980s teenage movie and the darker reflections of adolescent life that were to come in the 1990s.
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Here the affluent young people of Beverly Hills are held in a gilded cage. With Jullian’s addiction fuelled by the easy money that comes his way. Money that runs dry when his family turn their back. It is here where Downey’s performance is nothing short of outstanding, and maybe that’s due to Jullian’s addiction reflecting his emerging drugs problem at the time.
Less Than Zero may not be your standard Christmas fare, but its place in cinematic history deserves far more attention. Less Than Zero challenged perceptions and gave birth to a whole host of further addiction-related dramas in the years after its release. It’s a film that acts as a bridge in 1980s teen dramas and demonstrates that the twinkling lights of Christmas often harbour much darker stories. Kanievska’s film may not be perfect, but it is essential viewing as it challenges the discussion on drugs addiction and the smoke and mirrors of the American capitalist dream.