***/**** Image A- Sound B-
starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr., James Spader
screenplay by Harley Peyton, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
directed by Marek Kanievska
by Walter Chaw The quality of dislocation in Marek Kanievska's Less Than Zero is startling and sinister. It creeps up on you after a confusing opening that skips forward six months from a high school graduation before flashing back a month and then reorienting itself again in Beverly Hills at Christmastime in 1987. But by the middle of the film, the temporal decisions made during its disorienting prologue suddenly make perfect sense: while Less Than Zero will never be as narratively jumpy again, the pervasive mood of the piece remains disconnected and frightened. It feels breathless in a way that movies about drug addiction must. Though Less Than Zero seems, despite its sterile apocalyptic blight, almost naïve in the wake of Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, it retains (especially in retrospect, given the lost spirit of the Eighties and Robert Downey Jr.'s offscreen problems), something approaching the laden nostalgia of Romanticism. Something by Thomas de Quincey, no doubt.
A lurid comic-book satire of the Eighties from the pen of Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), Less Than Zero locates its hero in Clay (Andrew McCarthy), the only one of three rich friends from Southern California to go out of state and on to college. After finding his girl Blair (Jami Gertz) and best friend Julian (Downey Jr.) in bed together at Thanksgiving, Clay receives a phone call from Blair begging him to return for Christmas break. What he comes home to is all slightly off-centre and strange. Cocaine and excess are the body snatchers of this horror film: Clay finds Blair robotic and Julian jittery. Gertz and Downey Jr. are, in other words, at once perfectly cast and typecast.
What works best in Less Than Zero are the very things with which it is easiest to find fault. It's indicated by an emptiness at its centre, a certain elusiveness shrouding its characters in arch disinterest. The film's key scene is a dialogue between Clay and Blair in the small hours of the morning after a night spent club-crawling in search of Julian. What they say isn't nearly so important as how they say it as a long, deserted tunnel telescopes behind them. Less Than Zero presents a portrait of the addict that is searing (Downey Jr. is very simply magnificent), an indictment of the intemperance of the Eighties that is resonant, and, almost as importantly, a look at the radioactive fallout for an addict's family and friends. It's about a process of grief among loved ones that begins before the victim is dead.
Less Than Zero works because its performances are right and its presentation is strong. The direction is showy and slick and its sets are all polished surfaces carefully arranged, but that's just right, too. Hardly a perfect film--it may be played too straight for that, never fully getting the cruel joke at its core that provides the picture its pulse--Less Than Zero is one of the strongest artifacts from one of our worst decades in cinema because it puts a finger to what went wrong.
Fox DVD's presentation of Less Than Zero features strong colouring, but the source print is marred by excessive grain and occasional (I noted two instances) combing. Its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is free of edge enhancement and other than the grain (always more obvious in dark scenes), the black and shadow levels boast of decent contrast. Having seen this film in the theatres as a kid and then only on the pan-and-scan videocassette, Less Than Zero looks relatively fantastic here--it's the best transfer for a Fox archival release that I've seen.
Audio comes in a Dolby 4.0 discrete mix that has a good level of clarity but relies upon its centre channel to the exclusion of several good rear-speaker opportunities (more parties and clubs in here than you can shake a stick at). Still, the cover-heavy soundtrack, including contributions by The Bangles, Roy Orbison and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, sounds great. Three remastered trailers (one with Spanish narration), five TV spots, and a Fox Flix montage round out the sparse package. Originally published: April 14, 2002.