It’s the new year, and you are pretty much done with holiday spirit. You need a palate cleanser to wash the taste of holly-jolly cheer out of your mouth.
Just as “Die Hard” is the seasonal 1980s action film that actually embodies the spirit of Christmas, “Less Than Zero” is the ’80s drama that’s also set during Christmas but runs absolutely counter to the spirit of the holiday.
The 1987 film adaptation of “Less Than Zero” is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 debut novel of the same name. It is practically the Disney cartoon version when compared with the Brothers Grimm original, but the movie is still satisfyingly downbeat.
Straitlaced preppy Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is wrapping up his first semester of college in the Northeast and is returning home to Los Angeles for his Christmas break. His gorgeous but insecure ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is anxious to see him, but when he takes it as a sign they might get back together, she rebuffs his advances and asks him if he’s seen Julian.
Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) is the mercurial mutual friend of Clay and Blair. He broke Clay’s trust by sleeping with Blair after Clay had gone off to college.
Julian is not well, and while Clay has known Julian his whole life, it takes a while for him (and those of us in the audience) to grasp the full extent of how bad things have gotten for Julian.
And if Clay holds out any hope of rescuing Julian from his self-made mess, he won’t be able to avoid going head-to-head with Rip (James Spader), the initially amiable but then ruthless drug dealer to their peer circle.
For those of us who’d watched Downey’s work long before he began playing Tony Stark in the first “Iron Man” film in 2008, seeing him as the charming yet deeply untrustworthy Julian is an eerie reminder of the actor’s real-life drug-addicted, relapse-prone past as one of Hollywood’s bad boys.
Downey himself conceded that point in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, when he recalled playing Julian and said, “For me, the role was like the Ghost of Christmas Future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character.”
Even as a 22-year-old making “Less Than Zero” in the midst of his offscreen drug use, Downey’s acting is as electric as ever, and his performance shimmers in light of the real-life addictions that Downey would not overcome until he went clean and sober in 2003.
Aside from serving as a showcase for Downey’s quicksilver skills and magnetic personality, “Less Than Zero” is such an uncanny time capsule of the decade in which it was made that even Ellis, who initially hated the film for the massive changes it made to his novel, has since complimented it for capturing the ’80s zeitgeist so affectingly.
While McCarthy is merely serviceable as Clay, Spader delivers a performance to rival Downey’s as the amoral pimp Rip.
Spader’s unblinkingly clear-eyed stare is virtually reptilian in the inhuman level of cold menace it exudes, which makes his later turn as Ultron, the genocidal robot archenemy of Downey’s Iron Man in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” all the more amusing and fitting.
As for Gertz, she made “Less Than Zero” the same year she appeared in Joel Schumacher’s “The Lost Boys,” radiating an endearingly empathetic vulnerability in both roles. Watching those two films back-to-back should convince anyone she was one of the most beautiful women on the planet in 1987.
This film as a whole is achingly beautiful, from Thomas Newman’s haunting synthesizer score to a series of visuals that look like the neon-hued offspring of Patrick Nagel’s art portfolio and the best-directed MTV music videos of the era.
And its soundtrack of musical artists from Glenn Danzig and Roy Orbison to the Bangles and LL Cool J, is totally dope, as the cool kids once said, but that’s what you get with Rick Rubin as a producer.
We see how Julian’s addictions have torn his family apart. But director Marek Kanievska and cinematographer Edward Lachman also illustrate the no-less-dysfunctional dynamics of Clay’s quietly civil divorced parents, who struggle to make polite conversation in between drinks during their holiday get-together.
The subdued, austere fragility of Clay’s parents is jarringly and deliberately intercut with scenes of Clay and Blair making out to rock music just down the hall.
“Less Than Zero” is a film made not so much to be watched as to be experienced, letting its neon hues and synthesizer score wash over you like the warm tides of a sandy beach after dark during the summer.