Clay (McCarthy), Blair (Gertz) and Julian (Downey Jr) are a trio of well-off LA friends who graduate from college full of hopes and dreams for the future. But within months it’s all gone sour – Blair has dumped Clay for Julian, and Julian is getting further and further into debt with suave drug dealer Rip (James Spader). When Julian returns from college for Christmas, he finds Blair eager to rekindle their friendship, and Julian’s life in serious danger from both Rip and the drugs he’s consuming.
Less Than Zero has style to burn – cinematographer Ed Lachman captures these characters' empty lives with shimmering lighting and steely blue filters, the gliding camerawork and clinically white set design creating a distant, emotionally cold tone. But that’s also part of the problem – you don’t feel much sympathy for anyone, nor do you really get the impression that they really care that much for each other. Their cocaine problems are a direct result of their privileged upbringing and the money they have to waste, and unlike James Van Der Beek’s character in the thematically-similar Rules of Attraction, we never get to see the real people behind the flashy exteriors.
It’s not helped by the variable quality of the performances. Robert Downey Jr and James Spader are convincingly fucked-up and slickly menacing respectively, but McCarthy and in particular Gertz struggle with the more dramatic material. True, their characters are less interesting than Julian or Rip, but it’s not hard to see why they were quickly eclipsed by Downey Jr and Spader in terms of roles and celebrity.
No era has dated quicker than the 1980s, and that gaudy, shallow, coke-addled decade proves a perfect setting for Ellis’s tale. Nevertheless, the passage of time has blunted its edge, making it more a hollow curiosity than the searing drama it wants to be.
British-born director who began working in UK TV before making the acclaimed drama Another Country in 1984. The Bret Easton Ellis adaptation Less Than Zero followed, but it would be another 13 years before Kanievska’s third film, Where The Money Is. A Different Loyalty, with Sharon Stone and Rupert Everett, was released in 2004.