Less Than Zero (1987)

This is an odd one. Less Than Zero was supposedly adapted from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, though there seems to be a consensus the movie has almost no relation to the book. I haven't read it, but apparently there was virtually no plot, so rather than attempt to adapt it, the producers had a series of writers create an entirely new script with an entirely different nonexistent plot.

The non-plot centers around Clay, a college freshman who returns to his upscale LA home to find his best friend, Julian, has become an addict. Clay's girlfriend, Blair, is also an addict, but isn't quite as out-of-control as Julian, who we eventually learn is being forced into prostitution by his dealer. There's a love triangle, as well, since Julian and Blair had an affair while Clay was gone, but this feels oddly tacked on. Apparently, in the book Clay was supposed to be bisexual, a detail that was removed by the studio, presumably to make the movie more boring.

The movie just kind of waffles as we follow Clay and he slowly realizes just how bad Julian's situation has become. And, of course, as he and Blair rekindle their romance in what may be some of the least interesting love scenes I've seen in years. Julian spends most of the movie trying to come up with solutions to his problems, only to have them fail to work. Eventually, he's forced back into prostitution, is rescued by Blair and Clay, only to die of an overdose of irony in the car.

Less Than Zero is probably best remembered as the film that dramatically raised critics' opinions of Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Julian. And Downey is absolutely great in the role, though there's of course an awkward aspect to all this, given he'd later resemble his character in real life (he famously referenced the role as his "Ghost of Christmas Future").

Setting that aside, the movie as a whole is bland and pointless. Apparently, the book is mainly a critique of the affluent, hollow culture of upper-class white America in the '80s. While aspects of that make it into the movie around the edges, the central theme really seems closer to "Drugs bad." This is, at its core, an expensive, R-rated after-school special. Hell, at one point Blair outright states she can quit whenever she wants. This is less an indictment of American culture than it is a morality play.

That said, the movie is visually appealing. The clubs and parties are gorgeous, though that works against the idea this is critical of its setting. I get the people are bad, but honestly the club with TVs for walls is awesome and looks like a cool place to hang out. Same goes for the homes of everyone's rich but inexplicably oblivious parents.

That ties into the Christmas elements, as well, since the holidays mainly serve as set decoration. I should note the movie's tone is also reminiscent of noir, which blends nicely with the season. Shane Black used similar depictions of LA holiday parties in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, though of course he bothered to add a plot and interesting characters. Still, I can't help but wonder if Less Than Zero partially inspired him to cast Downey in that film.

Ultimately, the holiday aspects of Less Than Zero wound up feeling surface-level and underutilized, but that's the movie in a chestnut-shell. It looks good, and Downey puts in the work, but the movie as a whole is a waste of effort. It has a modicum of interest as a curiosity - I spent most of the movie in a state of bewildered fascination that it ever got made - but once you're over that, it just doesn't have much lasting value.