Sunday, May 10, 2015

Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987)

You could view this film as a highly polished expose on the negative effects drugs had on the W.A.S.P. population during the height of the "Just Say No" era. You could also view it, if you had some serious time to kill, as an eerily accurate foretelling of the emergence of rap metal. However, as someone who has seen Less Than Zero (a.k.a. Unter Null) more times than they care to admit, the proper way to view it is to look at it as the only film to capture the majestic splendour that is Jami Gertz in black stockings in a satisfactory manner. Oh, and I know what you're thinking: "Hey, Yum-Yum. How do you know Jami Gertz was wearing stockings? For all you know, they could have been pantyhose... super-tight, vagina-constricting pantyhose." Trust me, I know. No, I don't have the ability to see through women's clothing (at least not yet I don't). But thanks to the fully-clothed hallway sex scene that takes place near the end of the movie, I was able to ascertain the exact type of hosiery that was affixed to Jami Gertz' slender gams. So there.

(Did you say, "fully-clothed" sex scene? If so, how does that work?) Well, you see... Wait, I'm not going to explain to you how fully-clothed sex "works." But I will say this, if you don't have sex while at least wearing one article of clothing, you're no different than a mentally-challenged emu or some insipid billy-goat trolling the fields for ovulating sheep pussy.

While it brings me great pleasure to go on and on about Jami Gertz, who, seriously, looks amazing in this film, the thought of James Spader stalking L.A.'s hottest night-spots circa 1987 is never far from the back of my mind. I mean, how could it not be? Sure, he's a drug dealing scumbag named "Rip," but he's so darn pretty.

Sporting a brown trench-coat and slicked back hair, James' Rip is the personification yuppism gone awry; not to imply that yuppism was ever symmetrical, but yuppies usually commit white collar crime, they don't sell crack to leggy debutantes and shiftless trust fund layabouts.

Anyway, while Jami Gertz and James Spader provide the eye candy, Robert Downey, Jr. provides the acting chops. His performance as Julian, a drug addicted rich kid, is... What's that? What does Andrew McCarthy provide? Um, I'm not quite sure. I've seen the film, like I said earlier, a shitload of times, but I've never really given him much thought.

As I was saying, Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance in this film is definitely a career highlight. (I thought you said Hugo Pool was his career highlight.) You're joking, right? If anything, Robert's drugged out demeanour in Hugo Pool is eerily similar to the one he displays in Less Than Zero. The only difference being, I don't think he's acting in Hugo Pool.

Filled with hope and junk,  three friends, Clay (Andrew McCarthy), Blair (Jami Gertz) and Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), graduate high school in Los Angeles in the spring of 1987. While Clay goes to college on the east coast, Blair and Julian stay in L.A. to do cocaine. The end.

While you're probably thinking to yourself: It can't be that simple. Well, actually, it can. You see, 1987 was a simpler time. You went to school, you did cocaine and that was it.

We do learn, thanks to some stylish black and white flashback scenes (accompanied by the warm synths of composer Thomas Newman, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael), that things got somewhat complicated for the three friends over the course of the following summer, when Clay learns that Blair and Julian became fuck buddies his back (Clay and Blair were a couple - and, for what I could gather, pretty hot and heavy).

Even though Clay plans on coming home for Christmas (to spend the holidays with his cartoonish-ly waspy family), he is still somewhat shocked when Blair calls up him out of the blue. Thinking that she wants to apologize for her fling with Julian, Clay seems eager to see her (this eagerness is accentuated by the use of The Bangles' cover of "Hazy Shade of Winter," which famously blasts on the soundtrack as he arrives in L.A.).

Oh, and before you point out the unlikelihood that Clay would be a Hüsker Dü fan (his L.A. bedroom has a "Land Speed Record" poster on the wall). Remember, kids, Ferris Büller had a Micro-Phonies-era Cabaret Voltaire poster on his wall. And does anyone actually think Ferris listens to Cabaret Voltaire? 'Nuff said (someone on IMDb pointed this out, and, in doing so, saved me from going on a mini-diatribe).

As for Tia Russell, Jean Louisa Kelly's character from Uncle Buck... now she's a Cabaret Voltaire fan.

Sticking with the music theme. As anyone who has seen Less Than Zero knows, music plays an important role in shaping the hedonistic, party-obsessed universe depicted in this film. Curated by producer Rick Rubin, the music heard during the film's many club scenes was, for the most part, not to my liking. For one thing, I don't think Kiss (covered by Poison), Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith and The Doors do a very good job of representing the period. I mean, couldn't they have at least used "Everything Counts" by Depeche Mode? I know, it's a little too on the nose, but still... it's synthy.

On the other hand, I loved the use of Manu Dibango's "Abele Dance." The funky Afro-jazz funk barn-burner also has the distinction of playing when my favourite extra appears onscreen. Holding a portable hand-held television near his face, the way this guy bops back and forth to the track's catchy horn hook never fails to fill me with joy. Wait, joy?!? Yeah, fuck it. Joy!

Getting back to the story for a second. When his disappointment over the fact that Blair called him not to get back together finally subsides, Clay soon discovers that almost everyone is abusing drugs. Including Blair and Julian. But more so in the case of the latter, who owes James Spader's scumbag drug dealer character 50,000(!) dollars.

In a weird twist, IMDb comes through yet again. You know that white shirt Robert Downey Jr. wears throughout most of the movie? Yeah, the one with the giant red splotch on it. Well, I always thought the graphic was a gun shot wound. It turns out it's not a gun shot wound, but a poinsettia; which is fitting since this is technically a Christmas movie.

While it's no Christiane F. in terms of realism, nor in terms of exuding late 1970s West Berlin/Bowie cool, the film does have its moments. And even though most of these "moments" are visual, thanks to cinematographer Ed Lachman and production designer Barbara Ling, I happen to think Less Than Zero is, after all these years, still on the cusp of being watchable.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that this film was the West Coast answer/alternative to BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY. Both Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were hot young literary turks at the time and were chronicling their respective scenes. I know a lot of people blast LESS THAN ZERO for being non-too faithful to its source material but I still think it nails the spirit of the novel quite well, esp. Downey and Spader's performances, which deserve films of their own.