Aug 11, 2014
Although I think Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Glamorama) is a mostly untalented, uninteresting, and exceedingly overrated writer who pollutes people's brains with his frivolous degeneracy, I like, to some an extent or another, virtually all of the films based on his novels, if not for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, it seems that even with an incompetent director, Ellis’ signature emotionless satirical attacks on the members of his decidedly decadent and seemingly psychopathic white collar upper-class background seem to translate better on screen, with music and actors accentuating the ‘hip’ flatness of his scribblings. Unquestionably, one of the worst, if not the worst, film based on Ellis’ work is Less Than Zero (1987), which is loosely based on the writer’s debut 1985 bestselling novel of the same name. Of course, as a film featuring real-life cockhead Robert John Downey, Jr. playing a fictional cockhead who peddles his ass and mouth to men for blow, the film is not all bad, as a soulless and largely aesthetically worthless cinematic venture that more or less perfectly expresses the essence of the spiritually and culturally vacant zeitgeist that it depicts. Directed by Polish-British TV director turned mainstream auteur Marek Kanievska, who previously directed Another Country (1984) starring real-life butt-darting Brit Rupert Everett as a butt-darting school boy turned commie true believer who defects to the Soviet Union because he believes the English class system persecutes cocksuckers and that the reds will accept his cocksucking with open arms, Less Than Zero is certainly no less critical of capitalism and the upper-class, as it depicts Los Angeles as a plastic radio rock Sodom inhabited by dapper drug zombies and Barbie doll debutantes where wimpy pseudo-suavely dressed WASP psychopaths sell their coke-addled friends into sex slavery, young models cannot get enough cock and cocaine, and every night is one big stupid party plagued by vulgar flashy fashion statements, putrid pop rock and rap, and mind-numbingly boring small-talk and business talk. Centering around a weak dork played by perennial weak dork Andrew McCarthy (Mannequin, Pretty in Pink) who comes back to his hometown in Los Angeles for Christmas break after his first six months in college, only to discover his best friend and (ex)girlfriend have degenerated into erratic cocaine addicts who think life is one big party, Less Than Zero is ultimately an emotionally vacant film about emotionally vacant people who suffer senseless self-induced personal tragedy, thereupon making it vaguely humorous in a sick unintentional sort of way. Indeed, a sort of half-entertaining antidote to the sentimentalist pseudo-angst of John Hughes flicks where one of the ‘heroes’ drops dead in the end due to his own mindless self-indulgence, Kanievska's badly bastardized Ellis adaptation is ultimately a reminder of how worthless the 1980s were, with the west coast upper-class reflecting everything that is repugnant about white America. Featuring arguably the most airheaded Jewess ever depicted in cinema history as played by Jami Gertz and the always annoyingly arrogant WASP wuss James Spader as a dope-dealing preppie villain, Less Than Zero is like a melodrama for Abercrombie & Fitch automatons who need a guide towards expressing actual human emotions.
It is 1987 and three over-privileged L.A. friends graduate with “money and happiness” on their mind, yet they will ultimately have a hard time obtaining both, especially the latter, hence why 2 of the 3 rich kids become preppie dope fiends. As a graduation present from his exceedingly wealthy father, an extroverted cokehead gooftball named Julian Wells (Robert Downey, Jr.) is given enough money to start a record label, so he opts out of getting a higher eduction, though his friends, lovers Clay Easton (Andrew McCarthy) and Blair (Jamie Gertz), are planning to move away to college. In six months, the friends are no longer the best of friends anymore, as sex, drugs, and rock n roll come into play. An aspiring model that is afraid to move away and has more boobs than brains, Blair ultimately decides to stay behind at the last minute and eventually starts a love affair with her boy toy Clay's best bro Julian, who eventually loses all of his money after his rather naive record deal scheme falls through. As someone who cannot handle failure, small-time cokehead Julian turns into a full-blown blow addict to relieve his inner pain, which ultimately only further compounds his problems. During Christmas break, Clay heads back to Los Angeles, though he is not interested in seeing his friends who literally and figuratively screwed him over, but they need his help, so he really does not have a choice and eventually gets lost in the narcotic-fueled nightmare that is his decidedly degenerated comrade's lives. Indeed, Julian is so in love with gutter glitter that he owes $50,000 to a suave and pathologically cynical psychopath named Rip (James Spader) who, on top of being a white collar drug dealer that mainly supplies the rich man’s candy, is a preppie pimp who has a rather lucrative business prostituting out his more desperate buyers to rich Hollywood homos. To his credit, Rip is a proud prick who has no problem exploiting people as demonstrated by his remark to Clay during a party, “These people are assholes. You know, who gives a fuck about these people?” Of course, even though Julian fucked his girlfriend, Clay cares about his blow-addled friend, so naturally he and Rip are going to have a wuss war of sorts involving passive-aggressive behavior and the sort of sassy remarks that candy ass rich boys from California make.
Being a rich kid, Julian does not understand the concept of work and thinks that by borrowing enough money to start up a nightclub, he will be able to get out of the perennially growing hole he is in, but he of course screws that scheme up and continues to obtain large quantities of coke from Rip. Of course, passive predator Rip does not give him the drugs for free, as he coerces him into sucking the cocks of rich queers to pay off his tab. Meanwhile, Clay rekindles his seemingly soulless relationship with braindead brunette bimbo Blair, who also snorts a lot of blow, though she is not as bad off as Julian as she does not need to blow men to support her rather expensive habit. Somewhat reluctantly, Clay attempts to help Julian with his hellish addiction, even being by his friend's side when he goes through drug withdrawal, but his friend's sobriety only lasts a day or so. Indeed, when Rip has one of his henchman whip out a crackpipe and wave it in Julian’s face, the cokehead turned crackhead begins smoking the blue-veined Havana once again. When Clay goes looking for Julian at a fancy hotel that Rip has rented out for his cultivated cocksucker clients, he finds his friend blowing some wealthy blonde guy. Though Clay manages to get Julian out of the hotel, he later has a PBF (pretty boy fag) fight with Rip and one of his henchman, with Blair jumping in to to help her weakling boyfriend. In the end, Clay, Blair, and Julian drive through the desert late at night so the latter can reach sobriety, but the teenage cokehead ultimately ends up dying of heart failure at sunset. Of course, with their friend dead, Blair agrees to go back to college with Clay, so at least some good came out of Julian's premature death.
Not surprisingly, Bret Easton Ellis absolutely hated Less Than Zero when it was released as he felt all the characters were miscast aside from Downey and Spader’s, though he has slightly warmed up to the film over the years. Ellis would later state regarding why he thought the film was a failure: “Well, who was happy with it? I don't know anyone who was happy with it. The director wasn't happy with it, and it was this compromised movie for many, many reasons. I don't think it began that way - I think that Scott Rudin and Barry Diller, who were the ones who brought it to 20th Century Fox, had a very different movie in mind. I think when there was the regime change at the studio with Leonard Goldberg taking over, who was a family man who had kids, it became a different beast. I grew up around Hollywood, and I had no real desire to see the book made into a movie. I thought, 'Well, we'll take the money, and 98% of all books optioned never make it to the screen, so....” Of course, there are countless differences between the film and novel. For instance, while protagonist Clay is a banal tight ass in Kanievska’s flick, he is a bisexual hedonist of the one-night-stand-oriented and coke-snorting sort in Ellis’ source novel. Additionally, the novel features, among other things, an appearance from a 12-year-old female sex slave who villain Rip keeps drugged in his bedroom and who is apparently raped by a character named Trent that is barely even featured in the film. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, Ellis would mention the film in his sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms (2010). Additionally, Ellis would make reference to Less Than Zero star Jami Gertz in his novel American Psycho (1991), with the serial killer antihero Patrick Bateman asking about the actress at a video store and zoning out while fantasizing about fucking the actress after a video store clerk remarks that he does not know who she is (indeed, aside from people who have seen superlatively shitty 1980s teen movies, no one knows who Gertz is nowadays). While Less Than Zero is rather weak in terms of wantonness and nihilism in comparison to the source novel, director Marek Kanievska is not totally to blame as he apparently shot a raunchier and more debasing work than the pansy cut that exists today, but 20th Century Fox studio took the film away from the director during post-production and edited out all the more provocative and depressing scenes. Of course, one also cannot leave out the fact that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer wrote the original screenplay for the film, which was more faithful to the book, but it was ultimately rejected for being too degenerate and depressing, as the people at Fox were probably hoping to make some sort of monetarily successful Breakfast Club (1985) rip-off (ironically, the film was still a commercial failure).
Undoubtedly, out of all of the Ellis related films, including The Informers (2008) and The Canyons (2013), Less Than Zero is easily the weakest, least provocative, and most contrived, as a sort of coke-fueled West Coast St. Elmo's Fire (1985), minus anything resembling character development and nuance. As the quasi-documentary This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis (1999), which features no-budget adaptations of segments from the novelist’s various works (including Less Than Zero and American Psycho), reveals, Less Than Zero could have been an even bigger disaster than it already is, as Kanievska's mise-en-scène is easily the most potent thing about the film. Unquestionably, as the novelist himself agrees (he once stated of the work, “I think the movie itself is the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language”), Roger Avary’s 2002 The Rules of Attraction adaptation is an Ellis flick done right, as a film that is easily superior to the novel. As I mentioned before, Less Than Zero is mainly of interest because of its portrayal of real-life coke addict Robert Downey Jr. as more or less playing himself, with the added bonus of the Hebraic actor smoking cocks for crack rocks, thus making it a mildly entertaining example of pseudo-art imitating life and vice versa. Unquestionably, the film also features some of the most innately vapid and unsympathetic characters in film history, even for a 1980s flick, as a film that should probably be buried in a time capsule. Indeed, when people of the future ask why rich whites became culture-less whores of Zion who helped lead American to abject ruin, they can simply watch Less Than Zero and see how that zeitgeist (and everyone after it) had the spiritual and moral prowess of an elderly French hooker. But then again, one cannot completely loathe a film featuring Slayer's cover “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Glenn Danzig singing a crappy ballad featuring negresses doing backup vocals.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:41 AM
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