Robert Downey Jr. stars in Less Than Zero, a 1987 film based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel. It also stars Jami Gertz, Andrew McCarthy and James Spader.
The film follows three friends as their lives evolve (or devolve) after college: Clay (McCarthy) and Blair's (Gertz) relationship ends when the latter has an affair with Julian (Downey Jr.) and, some time later, a now successful Clay returns to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his family and reconnect with old friends, including old flame Blair. Unfortunately, Julian's drug problem quickly becomes a liability for everyone. Robert Downey Jr. gives a reliably strong performance as the ebullient yet wounded Julian and James Spader is, of course, entirely convincing as the main antagonist. The film itself works best when it focuses on the sleazier side of L.A. and how the pressures of fitting in and making it big in the city can turn people into mindless cocaine-fuelled zombies, probably on a downward spiral to self-destruction. For every fun, trendy party or well-off family house the film depicts, there's an unhealthy price for the characters to pay.
The problem with Less Than Zero is, when it comes to showing the effects of drug-taking, it feels surprisingly naive. In the vein of a film like Days Of Wine And Roses, this movie assumes that we have no idea that alcohol and other stronger drugs can lead to abuse and have a negative impact. The satire and the core themes the film explores end up getting lost in the clumsy plot as Julian's decline is completely predictable and clumsily handled. The over-the-top, in-your-face yet underwritten script makes the film feel like more of an expensive 50's-style PSA than a genuine character-driven story. You want to care about Julian and the others and you can tell that there is a raw, important message in there somewhere but there's just nothing new or interesting about how that story is told. The result is the film is never truly convincing and its downer ending doesn't quite pack the punch it was hoping for since you could see that denouement coming a mile away.
A killer 80's soundtrack, some beautiful cinematography and solid performances-aside, Less Than Zero is clumsily preachy when it should have been both meaner and smarter. The novel is a safer bet than this underwhelming little movie, even if it does have its moments.
Average morality tale.