Less Than Zero is available to rent or buy now on Amazon Prime.
Long before Beautiful Boy and A Million Little Pieces, there was Marek Kanievska’s adaptation of the Brett Easton Ellis 1985 novel Less Than Zero. Less Than Zero was Easton Ellis’ first novel at the tender age of 21, marking the start of a 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 vanished into the mists of time despite its impressive cast of Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader. So why did the film receive such mixed reviews on its release? And why has it all but vanished in the years since?
Before I delve into the lasting legacy of Less Than Zero, let me take 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 two distinct models of teen dramas and comedy; the first built on working-class outsiders and the second on middle-class American teen life in movies ranging from The Breakfast Club to Pretty in Pink and St Elmo’s Fire. Their mainly middle-class characters reflected 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 primarily 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 TV slots and a famous Grange Hill storyline in the UK, the ‘Just Say No’ campaign remained absent from films. This was for a good reason, as while ‘Just Say No’ embraced a simple message for kids, the reality of drug use was far more complicated for many teens as it reflected a growing wealth divide and a slowly increasing disillusionment in the ever-growing culture of image. In choosing to forgo some of the trappings of the book, Kanievska’s Less than Zero was the first major 80s film to attempt to reflect the decade’s growing drug culture with raw honesty. Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is a straight-A student who has recently left his affluent West Coast home for college. However, when Clay is asked to return to Los Angeles during the Christmas break by his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz), apprehension seizes him; he already knows what and who awaits him.
As he reluctantly arrives home, Clay is immediately thrust back into the fake, drug-fuelled culture of the wealthy LA suburbs he chose to escape. Travelling from one pretentious party to the next, it becomes clear that his best friend Julian has a coke habit that has, unsurprisingly, grown out of control. Julian’s father has cut off all financial support, with his dealer, Rip (James Spader), extending 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 permanently escape the madness of the LA 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, affluent young people living the 1980s capitalist dream didn’t suffer from the horror of addiction, did they? Yet, the affluence on display is also what makes Less Than Zero so powerful as it dissects 80s wealth, privilege and addiction and a series of darker adolescent themes that would find a cinematic voice during the 1990s. Here the affluent young people of Beverly Hills are held in a gilded cage of addiction, with Jullian’s drug habit fuelled by easy 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 in part due to his own emerging drug problem at the time.
Less Than Zero’s place in cinema history deserves far more attention. It challenged perceptions of drug use and gave birth to a host of addiction-related dramas in the years after its release. It’s a film that bridges the romantic 80s teen drama and the far darker movies of the 90s while demonstrating how the wealth and privilege of 80s upper-class city life often harboured far darker secrets. Kanievska’s film may not be perfect, but it is essential viewing, as it unpicks the American capitalist dream.