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Less Than Zero (1987)

Tags: Supporting Role, Drama, Must-See, Career Trajectory: Up and Coming Actor, RDJ is the Only Good Thing About This Movie, Shirtless, Underwear (Or Less), The Other Kind of Action, Gay Parade, Under the Influence, On DVD in Region 1, On DVD in Region 2, On DVD in Region 4

Summary

A wealthy college freshman comes home to L.A. for Christmas break and finds his friends in trouble.

Director

Marek Kanievska

Downey Factor

Mid-High. Andrew McCarthy is the lead, but there is a strong focus on Downey’s character.

Character

Julian Wells, a rich kid who gets in way too deep with his drug dealer.

Looks

Starts out nicely but goes down hill as the movie goes on.

Performance

One of his best, although journalists have been unable to resist comparing his strung out character to his real life.

Line

Do I look like I’m ready for homework?

Sings

Christmas carols.

Love & Sex

A fling with Jami Gertz (not shown), he’s interupted ‘on the job.’

Dies, Gay or Villain

Yes. It’s debatable. No.

Cast

James Spader, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz

Connection

James Spader in Tuff Turf and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Jami Gertz in Ally McBeal.

RDJ Says

In some ways it was the most honest work I’ve ever done even though I was nowhere near the level of depravity of these characters. The director, Marek Kanievska, ran screaming from Hollywood after the movie came out. We were making a midlevel, sensationalist, timely Bret Easton Ellis interpretation for Fox, but you would have thought he and I were on a Stanislavsky journey together. I had done some comedies, but I didn’t know if I knew what I was doing or not until [Less Than Zero] ... No one likes touching those weird subjects, and I think those are the kinds of roles that I want to do ... I thought I might have a good shot [at getting the part] because I really couldn’t see many of my peers being able to handle playing a crackwhore ... I was so fucking happy I got cast. I figured any actor who is smart and is semi-fearless would know that this is a great role. I think a lot of actors were turned off to it because Julian has, you know, bisexual encounters, but you can’t be paranoid about what people are going to think ... I was playing someone who drove a $60,000 Avanti to school every morning and was strung out on crack. I wasn’t from L.A., I had never saved enough money to even rent a car and I had never even seen anyone smoke crack. People were like, “It must have been a trip for you, having been a spoiled little rich kid on crack, to play one.” ... That’s probably the first time I created a character from scratch. And it was really emotional. The first scene [we filmed] was on the tennis court, when Julian is confronted by his father. Everything changed from then on, because I knew if I got that right, the rest of the film was going to go well ... I knew how much was riding on it and I said, “This is it. Do not pass go. If you do not kick ass here, you get no career.” I felt a lot of pressure ... I thought about aspects of myself and some of my friends. I said, “Look, this role is an exaggerated version of you, and it’s also not you at all, so don’t think about it, just do it.” ... It’s probably my best performance. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to leaving a part of myself up there onscreen for people to look at and examine. The part was relevant to what I was going through in my personal life at the time. I consider myself lucky to have gotten through that period with any sort of career and a working respiratory system ... I didn’t care if the elevator [at my hotel] smelled like urine because I was in Hollywood. The first day Spader came to the production office, he said, “You’ve got to get out of there,” and brought me over to the Chateau Marmont. From that minute on, I had it together—The Chateau, Fred Segal—and there I was, a young actor in L.A. All I needed was the apartment on Beachwood and some red furniture ... Less Than Zero was sort of a catharsis for me, except the difference between Julian and me is that Julian had a death wish—he just wanted to die ... Something happened to my psyche or spirituality while I was filming Less Than Zero. I mean, you start digging into your duffel bag that’s filled with all of your repressed ideas. Maybe there’s a family crisis, but you think, “I’ve got to put this in the back of my head because I’ve got other things to think about.” Until finally there’s this pile of dirty, mismatched socks at the bottom. I started to mentally pick them out and fluff and fold them ... It’s the first anti-Los Angeles. film made completely in Los Angeles. As for me. Everyone should like me until that one scene. Then they’ll say, “Damn, he’s a fag!” ... I think [the sex scene]’s been shot tastefully. It’s not a rock video if that’s what you mean. As for the sex, the other guy and I were just getting warmed up. Julian is really a nice guy who goes about three ways sexually ... I know the situation is really rank, but he’s made it that way. I’m sure [Julian] had a good family before he stole, lied, deceived and did all these things. No one can blame their family—as I think a lot of the characters in Less Than Zero, in a roundabout way, feel that they’re a product of their environment. You know, you’re not a product of your environment. You’re a product of yourself ... I think this really is a movie about change. People are afraid of change. They say things like, “We’re moving to Seattle—god I’m scared!” But all the characters in Less Than Zero change, whether it means changing by leaving this physical plane or by doing a serious transition, saying, “This is not making me happy” and doing a 180-degree turn. I think it’s a positive movie, but it takes a roundabout way of getting there. There’s positive and negative in anything.

Lit Reference

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
The script is a loose adaption of Ellis’ debut novel. Major differences from the movie include: Julian does not have a very prominent role, Clay does not try to save Julian, Rip and Julian’s pimp are two different characters, the novel is quite nihilistic and goes to further extremes.

Time & Place

Contemporary (1987), Los Angeles

Gossip

Supposedly, the director suggested Robert Downey Jr and Andrew McCarthy should go out and party to “get into character” which ended with Downey in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard, howling at the moon, and McCarthy had to bail him out of jail. Also (fact), in the McCarthy/Spader fight scene, one of the extras is a then unknown and uncredited Brad Pitt.

Availability

Released in theaters 6 November 1987. On DVD in Regions 1, 2 and 4.

Foreign Titles

Argentina: Corrupción en Beverly Hills (Corruption in Beverly Hills)
Brazil: Abaixo de Zero (Less than Zero)
Denmark: Livet i overhalingsbanen (Life in the Fast Lane)
Finland: Alta Nollan (Under Nothing)
France: Neige sur Beverly Hills (Snow on Beverly Hills)
Germany: Unter Null (Under Zero)
Hungary: Fagypont Alatt (Below Freezing)
Israel: Young in Trap (English translation)
Italy: Al Di Là Di Tutti i Limiti (Beyond All Limits)
Poland: Mniej Niz Zero (Less Than Zero)
Portugal: A Última Viagem em Beverly Hills (The Last Trip in Beverly Hills)
Spain: Golpe al Sueño Americano (A Blow to the American Dream)
Sweden: Noll Att Förlora (Nothing to Lose)

Rotten Tomatoes

54% Fresh | 24 Reviews

Critical View

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: The movie’s three central performances are flawless: Gertz, as the frightened girl who witnesses the disintegration of her friend; McCarthy, as the quiet, almost cold witness from outside this group, and especially by Downey, whose acting here is so real, so subtle and so observant that it’s scary.

Janet Maslin, The New York Times: Mr. Kanievska gives it a superficial stylishness that is quite spectacular; every scene revolves around one ingeniously bizarre touch or another (the lighting effects are especially dazzling), and the cumulative effect is as striking as it means to be. The persistent unnaturalness of the film’s look winds up being deeply disorienting, and very powerful ... Mr. Downey gives a performance that is desperately moving, with the kind of emotion that comes as a real surprise in these surroundings.

2 Reasons to See It

1. His super-powerful and acclaimed performance.
2. Decadence. Music. Fashion. Blow. Remember why you’re glad the 1980s are over (or that you never experienced them in the first place).

Overall

A weak and shallow story, but visually interesting and definitely worth seeing for Downey’s breakout performance.

If You Liked It

You might also like Tuff Turf, A Scanner Darkly, vintage anti-drug PSAs

Photos

Video