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I am rather obsessed with the title Less than Zero. I can’t seem to figure out exactly what it signifies. I know that the title of the 1987 movie comes from the title of Elvis Costello’s debut single of the same title but neither the movie or the book by Bret Easton Ellis has anything to do with the song. The song isn’t even included in the movie or on its bestselling soundtrack record. Costello gives few contextual clues as to what he means when he says Less than Zero and thus the title remains mysterious and elusive. It exists in the realm of sounding ‘cool.’
Andrew McCarthy stars in Less than Zero as yet another of his young yuppie caricatures. Clay is a straight-laced Angelino who left the West Coast to get away from the meaninglessness of life in the pre-fab Cali suburbs. Clay is called back to Los Angeles, however, after his cheating girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz) leaves a frantic phone message for him regarding his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.). Clay is wary of the call as Blair had cheated on him with Julian just weeks after he’d left for his Ivy League college.
Returning to Los Angeles, Clay is immediately thrust back into the fake stares and fake friendships of Los Angeles drug culture. This is a place where everyone is your friend and no one is your friend depending on your proximity to the drug of choice, Cocaine. Clay is liked by everyone but everyone is aware that his leaving for the East Coast was a good idea as his lack of a crippling drug dependency keeps him at a distance from his West Coast brethren.
When Clay finds Julian he quickly uncovers that Julian, whose father had given him thousands of dollars to break into the record producer biz, blew all of his dad’s cash on his cocaine habit. Julian’s dealer, Rip (James Spader at his snake-y best), has extended Julian credit to buy drugs but is now looking at ways to collect his debt that go beyond the money Julian no longer has. As Clay gets sucked into Julian’s downward spiral, he is able to resist the drugs but not his empathy for his childhood friend, a weakness that proves nearly as destructive as the drugs.
Less than Zero is based on the debut novel of literary bad-boy Bret Easton Ellis who would go on to write the even more successful and iconic American Psycho a short time later. Where that novel proved to be a definitive treatise on the artifice of 80’s greed culture, Less than Zero is a far looser portrait of 80’s drug culture. This is no scolding screed on the dangers of drug abuse, but rather a condemnation of the culture of artifice that leads to the kind of ennui and boredom that feed drug culture.
The movie may not closely resemble the book, McCarthy famously stated that not a single line in the movie is from the book, and yet, the dreamy imagery of the L.A party scene does capture the spirit of the novel. Ellis’s cry into the darkness is about how fake and empty life in Los Angeles is and how obsessed people are with creating the image of health and wealth without making any actual effort toward genuine health; mental, physical or otherwise.
The emptiness and artifice of Less than Zero is brilliantly captured by future Academy Award nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman who captures an impossibly dreamy Los Angeles. The perfection of these images of wealth is the ultimate counterpoint to Julian’s self-destructive behavior. Drugs seem to give Julian an even greater notion of how empty life is when everyone is obsessed with style and status, and watching him take drugs to cope and search for meaning is powerful because his surroundings are so tantalizingly beautiful yet artificial.
It’s fair to wonder if Robert Downey Jr. identified too closely to the role of Julian. Downey Jr.’ s struggle with drugs has fallen to the background of his career now that he’s at the top of the Marvel Universe, but in the 80s and 90s Downey Jr. looked as if he was going to be the ultimate cautionary tale about Hollywood’s obsession with style and status. He recovered, but when he made Less than Zero he still had the lowest points of his addiction to come and it goes to show that even being hyper-aware of your problems, to the point of turning your movie roles into meta-textual real-life drama, can’t help someone who is bent on destruction.
Downey Jr.’s authentic performance is remarkable, but none of the three main cast members stand out in Less than Zero. Instead, the biggest take away from Less than Zero is the atmosphere, the terrible, existential crisis at the heart of Los Angeles drug culture. The emptiness of the hedonistic pursuit of the next party, the next drink, the next high, is what Less than Zero captures better than any single performance in the movie. The obsession with the exterior fantasy and the emptiness beneath it are horror movie levels of frightening.
I’m no closer, at the end of this review, to having come to understand the title the exact meaning of the title Less than Zero. The more I think about it, the inexact nature of the title, it’s seeming meaninglessness and disconnection from the Elvis Costello song, actually might be the perfect commentary on this desperately disconnected movie. The title is all about meaningless cool and in the context of the movie that pursuit of empty cool personifies the deathly world of Less than Zero.