Clay: You happy or sad?
Blair: I’m not sad.
Clay: You don’t look happy.
Blair: But do I look good?
No interaction better sums up the pathos of Less Than Zero.
Released in 1987, Less Than Zero was criticized for “sanitizing into pointlessness” the Bret Easton Ellis novel that preceded it by two years. Ellis himself decried the adaptation for straying so far from his story. Indeed, from every synopsis of the book I’ve read there is only a passing resemblance to the film. The landscape it paints of the disaffected Hollywood Hills youth of the 80s is notably starker, more blatantly despondent. But to raise such a complaint against the film is to miss the forest for the trees.
Adaptation is interpretation. It’s the process of sculpting a preexisting story to a new medium. What makes an adaptation work is not an adherence to story or characters but to theme and tone. It’s about capturing the essence of the source material, the emotional response it evokes, the message it portrays.
This is to say that Less Than Zero didn’t need to copy the novel’s events to come to a similar conclusion. In fact, by scaling back on shock I feel the film might do a more effective job of conveying its ideas to a broader audience. As I’ve discussed in the past, over-reliance on shock often gives way to a focus on events rather than themes. It’s a tool best used in moderation.
Upon my first viewing of Less Than Zero it was the tone that struck me most. Watching the film feels like wandering through an endless night of partying in a despondent Beverly Hills. It’s dissonantly seedy compared to the abundance of wealth on display. It’s willfully ignorant of the beast Nihilism lurking under its skin, a thin veneer of bliss that cracks as its claws tear through.
The first act of the film showcases our main cast as they shuffle through parties thrown by young adults of wealthy backgrounds. Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is now an outsider to this world due to his time away at college. His eyes become the lens through which we see these people wasting away their lives to the allure of drugs and partying because they know nothing else. He’s come to realize just how imprisoning it is, concluding that he must break out friends before they self-destruct.
The scene I opened this post with exemplifies this perfectly: Clay’s “ex”-girlfriend Blair is hiding her unstable emotions under a mask of forced beauty, one so overblown that she ends up looking like a specter. She latches onto her modeling career as a reflection of her airbrushed self-image. To her, anything is better than facing her deep-seated emotional instability. But it isn’t just Blair. She’s a symptom of the widespread disillusionment of the people surrounding her.
Jami Gertz’s performance is perhaps the most easily overlooked part of Less Than Zero– indeed, even Ellis himself misunderstood it until having a change of heart years later– but it’s a big part of what makes the entire film work. Her stilted speech patterns convey her pain that she can’t hide despite her best efforts. She’s constantly overcompensating to keep her mirage in-tact. Gertz plays Blair as a character that is so obviously unsuccessful at tricking people that her true self shines through without you needing to hear the words she speaks; it’s apparent in her every expression. This facade of fakeness can be mistaken for bad acting when it’s an intentional choice and one that pays off dividends for Gertz.
On the other side of this is Robert Downey Jr.’s Julian. He’s the portrait of someone who has succumbed to his reality completely, accruing a deep drug debt as he falls down the hole of addiction. It’s a downward spiral that perpetuates as his father disowns him and he can’t find steady work. By the time he tries to get his life together it’s too late; Julian is doomed from the get-go. Clay and Blair do their best to bail him out but his dealer Rip (James Spader) is hawkish in exerting his power. We rarely see Julian as anything but coked out of his mind and Rip capitalizes on this.
You see, Rip doesn’t actually want Julian to pay back the $50,000. He’s far more valuable as a pawn that can be used for his own long-term gain. Even if Julian managed to get the money Rip would only kickstart the cycle anew. We see this in how Julian is pulled back in every time he revolts, his situation only becoming more dire. By the end of the film, Rip has Julian working in his prostitution ring while offering him coke to ease the pain. Coke is a method of control in this world, either by people over others or the world itself over its inhabitants. Rip just understands how to play the game.
This is the major narrative question that Less Than Zero poses: can these kids actually break out of this vicious cycle or is it destined to consume them? The film’s midpoint paints this picture in what’s for my money its best sequence. In it, we witness a dinner party taking place at Clay’s house. Compared to the parties we’ve seen up until this point it’s a somber affair, the adults having succumbed to their misery that the younger generation keeps repressed. Clay and Blair want nothing but to escape their depressive clutches.
And they do, making their way to an enclosure outside to engage in ferocious sex. Clay pins Blair up against a wall, supporting her body as she wraps her legs around him. It’s wholly unrealistic by design, accentuated with blaring guitar riffs. The director juxtaposes this with intercuts to and from the adults sitting in silence, frowns on their faces whilst a pianist plays in the corner (the presence of naturalistic music cements this as reality as opposed to the overlaid soundtrack when Clay and Blair are on-screen). You get the impression that in their youth they too put off adulthood just like Blair’s generation until they realized all too late that their future had evaded them. If Blair and co. don’t break out then this is what awaits.
There’s a third wheel in this sequence: Clay’s little sister. Julian sneaks into the house to find her playing dress-up with her mother’s jewelry. She innocently play-flirts with him as he showers her with flattery, all while his deft hand snatches some of the precious stones to pay off Rip. Clay’s sister is blissfully unaware of the depraved world she’s surrounded by and thus always has an unassuming smile on her face. The film glorifies the blissful ignorance of childhood as the fleeting time in our lives where there are no repercussions for playing make-believe. Through these three generational depictions we can see the arc of one’s life in this environment.
The melancholic oppression of the film is felt in how it’s always portrayed under a sheen of blue. This color is the representation of the melancholic and disillusioned world that is hell-bent on consuming everyone within it. It’s present in nearly every scene and its hue and placement in the shot mirrors the conflict of the characters. Here are a few examples:
(Note: if you haven’t seen the film and are sensitive to spoilers then skip the following paragraph.)
The final scenes of the film give an answer to its core thematic question: there’s a point of no return at which salvation is impossible. Julian was in too deep, he was doomed from the moment he took his first free drugs from Rip. However, his fate is what snaps Blair into reality throughout the second half of the film and his death is the last straw that makes her choose to leave Los Angeles for good with Clay. Make no mistake, she too was very nearly a victim of circumstance. Only when she faced her problems did she find her strength.
Less Than Zero is the Great American Film to its source’s Great American Novel. It shines an unfiltered light on a time and place in history. It’s a depiction of a reality that seems larger-than-life to an outsider but was anything but that to the people living it. Yet thirty years after its release we can still draw parallels between it and our own lives due to its universal message that we must push back against our world or else risk being consumed by it.
Every time I watch Less Than Zero I’m drawn in by its allure even though I know in the back of my head that it’s a facade. Perhaps that’s what is most powerful about the film and stories like it: a world of sex, drugs and no responsibilities is a lifestyle that seems superior to our own boring lives. It’s when we peek behind the curtain that the illusion shatters.