Below Radar: Less Than Zero

Posted on 29 April 2009 by HansKlopek

Greetings you crazy kids. Hans here with the weekly confection of Below Radar whacked out skullduggery (I have that word in my head for some reason. Don’t know what it means, but its a scorcher). Today I will take you all for a journey into the past, a journey into the far reaches of….1987.

I do so in honor of one of my favorite actors and hopefully one of yours, Mr. Robert Downey, Jr. I’ve been looking for an excuse to do a Downey-themed post for the past few months, and the release of his latest film, The Soloist, co-starring Jaime Foxx, finally gives me the opportunity. Needless to say, the last two years have seen Downey have the most prosperous period of his career, and considering the depths that he sunk to at certain moments, such a period was highly unlikely.

downey-mugDowney’s re-emergence has been so impressive because it has been so steep. Touted as one of the greatest talents of his generation at the start of his young career, he scored an Oscar nom for Chaplin in 1992 and sat comfortably on Hollywood’s A-list for the better part of the decade. Then began the period we are all familiar with, where a drugged out Downey lost control of his life and career, spending over a year in prison for reckless driving and violating probation and entering court-ordered rehab in 2004. Slowly, he began to pick up the pieces.

And slowly, we saw great performance after great performance drop upon us. A Scanner Darkly, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Good Night and Good Luck, and Zodiac showcased Downey’s scene-stealing chops and put the Hollywood mucky-mucks on notice for a comeback. It happened in Iron Man, where he took a comic book property and gave it the improvisational flair of a Woody Allen movie. Three months later came Tropic Thunder and Downey’s thunderously funny, Oscar-nominated turn as a self-indulgent Australian actor who plays an African American marine sergeant in blackface. It was a comic performance for the ages, and reminded us firmly that Downey was back on top.

I haven’t seen The Soloist yet, but the trailer seemed to showcase a quieter, more mundane Downey, not the jabbering loose cannon to which we have become accustomed. I’m looking forward to seeing it because it will show Downey playing someone we haven’t seen in the years since he returned from drug-addled obscurity: a regular guy that blends into the crowd rather than ferociously trying to stand outside it.

There have been times in Downey’s career when I felt like he was recycling the same slightly manic character over and over again. The performances that have stood out were the ones that revealed the wounds that exist underneath that theatrical armor. The Soloist feels like it could be that. Another of those performances is in the subject of today’s review, Less Than Zero.

The film showcases one of Downey’s bravest, most revealing performances. The film centers around the friendships ofless-than-zero-cover three young L.A. socialites: Clay (Andrew McCarthy), our young, conservative hero, Blair (Jami Gertz), the love of his life, and Julian (Downey), their drug-addled, troubled friend who is in with the wrong kind of people and seems incapable of staying out of their company.

The film begins with the threesome’s high school graduation. These kids are so rich and privileged that Julian, who dreams of a career in music, is set up by his father in that very business. Clay, who is Julian’s best friend, heads for an Ivy League school in the fall. By the time he returns at Thanksgiving, Clay and Blair have started sleeping together.

The film takes place over the subsequent Christmas Break where Clay returns again and starts to explore the depths that his friends occupy. Both Blair and Julian twist in the winds of cocaine addiction, promising to get clean and put their lives back together, but enamored by the thought of their next line. Clay is a detached observer–he clearly occupied this seedy world at one time, but has come back to free Blair from its grip. Julian seems to be more of an afterthought for him, but as he glimpses the horror that his friend’s life has become, he refuses to sit on the fringes.

The film is largely about addiction and Downey’s depiction of it is so chilling that it is almost scary to watch. He’s been kicked out of his house by his father (Michael Greene) because he lied and cheated his way through rehab. He owes $50,000 to a dealer (James Spader) who is running low on patience. He dreams of opening a nightclub in order to pay the money back, and enlists his rich uncle (Nicholas Pryor) for a loan to make it happen. He backs out at the last minute. On a dreary, hungover morning he ventures back to the house he has been exiled from, asking his father for mercy and acceptance. But the father refuses to be a pushover, and asks him to leave. Julian grabs a beer and retreats to the beach, using the rocks as a pillow as he sleeps it off.

The film’s plotline ultimately follows Julian’s degrading attempts, at Spader’s behest, to pay down his debt and Clay’s slow but building desire to rescue his friend. The film is based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, who has created a world out of privileged, addicted characters who teeter on the brink of oblivion. There are few meaningful connections in this world and Ellis accents the nihilism that underlies it. His books are painful to read, not because they are bad but because they reverberate with so much honesty and sadness.

junkie-downeyI’ve read the book Less Than Zero, and I’m glad the filmmakers saw fit to take another course, trying to pick some semblance of hope out of novel that depicted the meaningless, decadent lives of spoiled rich kids. Clay was the focus of the book but it is a good choice to remove him from the center of the movie. McCarthy plays him as a smart, well-meaning kid who desperately wants to stay away from the place his friends are trapped in. A good choice, and it provides an emotional arc to the film that the novel didn’t possess.

The film, directed by Marek Kanievska and written by Harley Peyton, is also brilliant in its depiction of the film’s time and place. This is an eighties movie if there ever was one, but the filmmakers do well to heighten the sense of aesthetic perfection that these characters possess. Clay wears a suit to every occasion. Parents’ houses seem to have lept from the pages of magazines. Wardrobes, hairstyles, and music all reflect the excess and hedonism of the period. This backdrop is useful because it underlines the imperfection of the lives playing out against it, and allows the human tragedy of the story to resonate with more pain and sadness.

The movie is well made, but it isn’t perfect. McCarthy and Downey are both well chosen, but Jami Gertz misses the mark as Blair, who comes off as a mindless beauty queen with little depth to speak of. The film’s conclusion is also a bit jagged–I could have done with more reflection on what happens rather than just a long, unnecessary helicopter shot and a brief park bench conversation.

But the film distinguishes itself largely through Downey, whose performance is scary in its realism and commitment. I also can’t get through a review of this film without singling out Spader, who has always been one of my favorite actors and was made for this kind of material, where he gets to be slimy and despicable but still somewhat reasonable. David Lynch needs to put him in a movie. He is pure L.A.                           

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Deborah M. Budd Says:

    Nice to see a reassessment of this film, now 25 years old, but still resonating with many of us who lived through the era of “recreational” self-destruction. I hear Brett Easton Ellis is writing a novel that picks up the characters’ lives 25 years down the road, to see how well they survived. He commented that he thought a new film with the same actors would be really intriguing. (Too bad the screenplay killed off Julian, who did not die in the book.)
    I saw Mr. Downey in “The Soloist” this week, and he delivers a much more introspective performance, but every bit as high-powered as last year’s two box office winners. It’s his movie, in my opinion (although he is ably assisted by the marvelous Catharine Keener). It’s great to see him performing at such a high level. Can’t wait to see what he does with “Sherlock Holmes.”

  2. Nomad Says:

    i’m not too excited about the Soloist, honestly; though “Collateral” and “The Kingdom” were good, Jamie Foxx tends have a bland acting style

  3. Rob Says:

    I appreciate both the book and the film interpretation of less than zero but find the film to be somewhat lacking when compare to the novel; its reoccuring theme of hopelessness and inadiquency provided, in my opinion, a welcome and more realistic change to other ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ works.

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