In a low-level film production class in my third year of college, our instructor, Jack, if I recall correctly, told us the two things to never include in our short scripts. We were about to enter into preproduction on our five-minute, 16 mm films to be shot on the much-loved, spring-wound Bolex camera, and Jack was trying to jar us out of the hackneyed mentality that had befallen many a student filmmaker to come before us. Those two things, were of course, drugs and scenes shot in cemeteries. Perhaps more amusing than his facetious aside was the collective groan that followed. He went on to say that in the history of cinema, there were only two good movies ever made about drugs — and those movies were Requiem for a Dream and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

While his lofty expectations for what constituted a good drug flick got the pot stirring for the rest of that class period, and wasted more time than it should have, I found myself thinking back to that “lesson of the day” as I wondered where to begin with Less Than Zero. The fact that it has a strong anti-drug message can’t be understated. Where it differs from the source material (Bret Easton Ellis’s novel of the same name) is that it seems to go for the low-hanging fruit, and does so pretty conspicuously. The question is, does it deserve to be considered a good film in spite of, or because of that fact?

I won’t lie, Less Than Zero has some sort of irresistible appeal for me. It’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but remains one of my personal favorites from the eighties, a hugely underrated film that I think has more to say than just, “say no to drugs.” I forced myself not to bring any preconceived feelings to this review, though I suspect it’s a less-than-objective one.

The story involves three high school friends, from the day they graduate to Christmas six months later. In that time, they have all but drifted apart, emotionally as well as geographically — with straightedge, college-bound Clay (a distant Andrew McCarthy) on the East coast and former girlfriend Blair (the lovely Jami Gertz) and best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) rapidly sinking into an abyss of drugs on the West. When Clay returns home to sunny L.A. to attempt to salvage his relationship with Blair, he finds Julian in need of some serious help and has to dig him out of an early grave.

Director Marek Kanievska seems to take the scared-straight approach, and of course a lot of that has to do with the studio’s efforts to clean up much of the X-rated, meandering existentialism of Ellis’s novel, in an attempt to put together a marketable package with three-act structure, an identifiable protagonist and a clear moral doggie bag to leave the theater with. The movie takes great liberties with the novel from what I understand, and I have a pretty good idea of what that means after having experienced both the cinematic and literary versions of American Psycho. Less Than Zero doesn’t have the cartoonish, satiric spin Ellis’s other adaptation does, and is instead a story told with gritty portent. Having not read the source material in this instance, I could only approach the movie as the landmark acting achievement in Robert Downey Jr.’s career that it surely is, and as a product of the eighties and all that that implies. Of course it’s possibly too dark and serious to be called an “eighties classic,” for fear of being lumped in with most of the movies you’d find in that category.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to feel passionate about these rich Beverly Hills kids stuck in the past and burning out. But their circumstances exist to more effectively communicate the theme of reconciling old memories with the harsh reality of the present.

The film’s main point of contention, I feel, is whether or not Clay is a likable protagonist. He’s the “responsible one” in the trio, yet is continually more interested in rekindling his high school romance than rushing to the aid of his best friend. Unfortunately, neither the character, nor McCarthy’s performance, can carry the movie. Were he more of a down-on-his-luck loser, someone who was no stranger to failure and whose experience of trying to make it meant he had to actually work for a living, he might bring something more meaningful to Julian’s complete downward spiral of self-destruction. Instead, I get the impression that at any moment, Clay could become the same person Julian is. What makes him so different?

And so, instead of a dramatic story of reconnection, we have a study of the phenomenal Downey Jr.’s human train wreck. As Julian drifts further and further away into oblivion, and Clay’s role remains passive, we watch the tragedy unfold. Exploring the elements of Julian’s life that have brought him to this point is like playing hopscotch over a trail of broken glass. Caught in the middle between the dark (Julian) and the light (Clay) is Blair, who is nearly a stone’s throw away from being dragged down into Julian’s world herself.

Julian is a terrifying picture of failure, or rather someone very much unable to deal with or process that concept. When we meet him, he’s on the verge of whoring himself out to pay back debts owed to the drug dealer (James Spader) who essentially owns him. He’s a complete mess: sweaty, hair matted, eyes bloodshot, dried vomit at the corners of his mouth. Desperately clinging to the notion that at any moment, everything is going to fall into place. If you’re familiar with Robert Downey Jr.’s history surrounding the film you know the story doesn’t end after the credits roll; the line between his on-screen character, and the reality of his situation behind-the-scenes, was largely blurred. Whether he brought a little something extra to the role, or the role rubbed off on him, I’m not sure. Knowing a few people like Julian, whose total refusal to accept rock bottom and be reasoned with only precipitate more severe consequences later down the pipe, I found his portrayal to be scarily spot-on.

As a film about or dealing with the consequences of hard drug use, Less Than Zero instills this lingering sense of unease that I think is quite unique. Julian is always on the verge of a breakthrough, but closer to a relapse. You know this is never going to end well. Thomas Newman’s powerful, haunting score evokes the nostalgia of childhood and happier days, yet each swell, when it hits, is deadly serious. And the bleak conclusion gives me a chill every time.

Drugs and scenes shot in cemeteries: Less Than Zero has both. Jack, this one’s for you.

Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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