Less Than Zero

October 12, 2009


Last night, I watched the film version of Less Than Zero (dir. Marek Kanievska, 1989). I realise that I’m 20 years late in offering my opinion about it. However, I was probably less than a year old when it was released and my friend Felix yesterday wrote a blog post about the book. By a spectacular coincidence, I had rented it on DVD from the good people at Close Up Videos on Brick Lane the day before.

I’ll try to be unironic without stumbling into solemnity.

Less Than Zero
isn’t a total failure, but it’s a great disappointment. Where the book was carnal and grotesque, the film is sentimental. Where the book was fatalistic and filled with Clay’s existential dread, the film simplifies Ellis’s nihilism, making it a simple ‘drugs are bad’ morality tale. Where the book was criticised for lacking depth, the film erases the most claustrophobic elements- Alana and Kim’s mindless consumerism, the endless parade of blonde male models, and the ever-present familial dysfunction.

The film changes our focus from Clay (Andre McCarthy) to Julian (Robert Downey Jr.)- or, rather, the relationship between Clay, Julian, and Blair (Jami Gertz). Thus, Clay is no longer our sole personal focus, and the other characters are no longer ethereal, almost faceless, blurs. We receive no sparse commentary on his passive acceptance of the city’s cycle of self-perpetuating violence. Instead, Clay is an anti-drug crusader battling with Julian’s unclear addictions in tandem with Julian himself. Julian’s descent into self-degradation is nowhere near as traumatic, and much more melodramatic. The pitch black humour has been ironed out in favour of washes of pastel colour and Thomas Newman’s spaciously synthesised score. The trauma and viciousness is ultimately what we most enjoy in Bret Easton Ellis’s writing. The only element of trauma in the film that doesn’t recall flamboyant RADA students flurrying down Malet Street is Julian’s death. This would be genuinely tragic if, first, it had happened in the book and, second, if it was in any way convincing- if Pete Doherty continues to live in 2009 then Julian would be in no position to unceremoniously die during a car journey through the desert.

The Rules Of Attraction (dir. Roger Avary, 2003) correctly identified and exploited the tone of Ellis’s apologia for drug-fuelled, self-interested, youth. American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000) correctly transferred Bateman’s solipsistic, crystalline, capitalist consumption to screen, although it lacked any of the book’s hideous malevolence. Less Than Zero seems very soppy in comparison. It’s entirely a product of its time. It had come at the end of a decade dominated by earnest John Hughes films about teenage outcasts, or delicious teen-truancy fantasies. Brat Pack films were about reconciliation and friendship in a way that Less Than Zero, in print, was as morally desolate as Clay’s childhood memories. Thus, Less Than Zero is inevitably harsher and slightly darker than St. Elmo’s Fire (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1985). However, its deviation from the book ultimately strips it of the attraction of comparison and, even as a free-standing film it falls short.

What Kanievska gets right (I hope) is L.A’s neon paradise. The club kids are suitably garish and brattish, and the characters’ homes are in exquisitely bad taste. Cocaine is omnipresent, and the scenes from various parties are brilliantly extravagant, complete with characters witnessing CCTV footage of themselves in true Easton Ellisian self-interest. The soundtrack is just about right- overseen by luminaries Thomas Newman and Rick Rubin- though there is no sign of Clay being battered by The Go-Gos’ ‘Vacation’. Jami Gertz looks as much like Blair should as Christian Bale looks like Patrick Bateman. Downey Jr. gets Julian’s rabbit-in-headlights look just right, but is physically bigger and bolder than the blanched, shivering, Julian of the book. Andrew McCarthy, unfortunately, is the weak link- but that’s partially to do with the decision to change the character from crumbling hedonist to bullish moralist.

It’s fine. Entertaining, but it’s not an independent cause of conversation. Hardly a waste of a Sunday evening, but it falls significantly short- even suggesting that it’s appalling- when compared to the smartest, and most significant movies, about that age demographic made since its release- La Haine (dir. Matthieu Kassovitz, 1995), Brick (dir. Rian Johnson, 2005), or This Is England (dir. Shane Meadows, 2006).

There are, however, rumours that Quentin Tarantino has expressed interest in making a more faithful screen version of the book. There is also a rumour that a film of Lunar Park is due this year. The problem with these statements is that they are derived from rumours, so I can’t actually back them up with citations.

We’ll see.

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