Yup, here I go again. I just have to include this one, Less Than Zero, because it’s sort of become a cult hit in recent years, in part for being a pretty good depiction of 80s youth, and featuring three stars who embody that decade and all its neon-glam associations (one was even a brat-packer).
So I decided to read the book by Bret Easton Ellis upon which the film is based, and that could either have been a brainchild or a mistake. The book is extremely reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye: both are told drolly from the point of view of an ostensibly disaffected youth, yet when you peel away the layers you can detect some real hurt. In Zero’s case, the youth is a college student named Clay, who comes back home from the East to L.A., where his old high school friends are now clubbing it up, surrounded by booze and drugs, and desensitized to everything and anything of human value. This didn’t just happen – they all grew up in an environment of extreme wealth, which had the effect of cutting them off from their parents, their friends, and any concept of repercussion or responsibility. Life was all about the now, and who was sleeping with whom, and what kind of sports car they just got for Christmas. It was affluenza, years before the term was even coined.
The book is often maddening to get through, because Clay just casually goes from one social engagement to another, and the narrative doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere. Although he interacts with many characters, one in particular – Julian – gets greater mention, and as he seemed to be doing the most drugs, it’s only a matter of time before he O.D.s and dies from his addiction. But even that event is an anticlimax. What you really have to look at in Zero is Clay’s unreliable narration – he has a “girlfriend” named Blair, but it’s so off-again, on-again, and loveless that you have to doubt his sexuality (there are a few hints to support this speculation). And despite his participation in this hedonistic lifestyle we get snippets of doubt that this is really a path he’d like to continue treading.
Zero is, by now, a modern-day classic, and it deserves to be one. But it took many, many years to attain this status. As it essentially trashed the mores of an entire decade, it needed time, and distance, for the public to fully digest its savage indictments. We can now apprehend its themes with all-too-crystal clarity.
But the movie version came out in 1987, two years after the publication of the book, which itself took place about a year before that. Clearly uncomfortable with several of the book’s elements, it overhauled nearly everything, save for a few key plot points. Clay is now a responsible, well-adjusted protagonist, played with straight-and-narrow preppiness by Andrew McCarthy. He arrives home from college, all right, but not as alienated wanderer. No, he’s a got a rock-steady romance with Blair (Jami Gertz), but less steady is their mutual friendship with Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s been upgraded now to major character. Although all three do cocaine casually, he soon becomes a hardcore addict and indebted to his dealer for $50,000. Clay and Blair spend pretty much the entire film looking for Juilan, asking if he’s okay, trading concerned glances, looking for him some more, getting him out of parties and clubs, screwing, losing him, looking for him again, taking the drugs away from him, and finally crying over his death.
So really what we’re left with is a 98-minute anti-drug commercial, despite some interesting contrasts between their halcyon high school days and the fun-filled but empty existence that is now. Sure, the book features extensive drug abuse by characters oblivious to their excesses, but that’s only the mode they use for their escape. The real culprit is far more deeply rooted. The movie, on the other hand, lays the blame squarely on the drugs, despite a few scenes of parental apathy and neglect.
So what we have to do, then, is judge the film on those merits. Does it succeed as an ant-drug polemic? Yes and no. Siskel and Ebert were famously split on whether or not it glamorizes drug use (Siskel: yea/Ebert: nay), and I’m somewhere in the middle. A major studio film like this couldn’t have shown as much drug use as it does without taking a condemnatory approach (this was ’87, after all). And we do indeed get a few raw moments of Julian puking in a bucket and crawling around on all fours. But most of the film shows us glamorous stars shooting up in neon-let bathrooms or beside reflecting pools (in fact, the neon-pool seems to be the film’s ubiquitous image). It doesn’t want to get too ugly, say Trainspotting ugly, but it also wants to remind us to Just So No, ad so we get Jami Gertz tossing her cocaine down the sink near the end, and the “that’s what happens” death of Clay in an ending reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy.
And there’s another thing that’s a bit troubling but Zero, and it dates the film far more than the drug scenes: its homophobia. This is perhaps one of the most homophobic films of the 80s, as gay characters are the real boogeymen in the story. The book includes them only as an indicator of time and place – Clay’s dad has a gay lover, but there’s no real reason for it beyond California verisimilitude. And later Julian is forced by his dealer into prostituting himself to gay patrons to pay off his debt. But this is just a peripheral story, meant to show the seedy, smarmy life the boy had to involve himself in to get himself out of trouble. It slides by, if only because Clay as the narrator is so blasé about it, and were more concerned about him than hateful of his abusers.
But the movie, as movies tend to be, is more literal, and it exploits the homophobia so rampant in 80s cinema. Now, Julian’s day is gay, and his sexuality is made entirely to blame for his lack of paternity. And Julian’s prostitution is meant to be harrowing, conducted by evil predators, and it’s even implied that his dealer is gay. There’s a needless plot twist early on, in which Julian was discovered sleeping with Blair while Clay was away at school, and this is only thrown in to confirm Julian’s heterosexuality, so we understand that all that sex slavery must’ve really been horrible for him. Again, it’s in keeping with the literal-mindedness of the film that it feels like it needs a villain.
One can’t help but wonder would’ve been like if directed by an indie director, like Gus Van Zant for example – someone who understands alienation and could’ve put the whole damned thing in context. But we got a slick music video instead, territory it feels more comfortable in. We know that because the soundtrack is loaded, with good songs too, and those scenes actually work pretty well. The smash hit “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles comes to mind – it’s played over the credits as Clay returns to LA to an empty house. It might well be the best scene in the film.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Downey’s acclaimed performance as Clay. Judging it entirely as a performance, and not as a bastardization of the character as originally written, I can only say that it’s okay. He’s got some heart-tugging moments toward the end, when he does elicit some concern about his physical well-being, but he e has just as many scenes near the beginning, when he acts so heedlessly, spouting would-be clever quips and jokes as he dangles off he back of a convertible, an you’re secretly wishing that his drug-induced death couldn’t come soon enough. I know – terrible. Not what the movie wants you to feel, but it’s how I felt.
The real eye-opener for me is Jami Gertz, whom I’ve always liked. I find her to be absolutely beautiful, but also has a provocative contrast – between her bitchy JAP exterior and a vulnerability underneath. Once those eyes glaze over they change from daggers to soft saucers, and you can’t help but fall in love. I did in this film, many times. When Julian died, I was more affected by her tears than by his passing.
Hmmm. Much to dislike, a few things to like.
(I think that’s fair.)