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Case Number 01779

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Less Than Zero

Fox // 1987 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // March 29th, 2002

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All Rise...

The Charge

The story of three kids who started out with everything and are about to wind up with less than zero.

Opening Statement

Art imitates life. Or maybe it's the other way around. For Robert Downey, Jr., I think the lines may be a bit blurred. As anyone who follows the entertainment biz knows, Downey has had his fair share of run-ins with the law due to a huge drug addiction. Actually, Downey has had enough run-ins with the law for seven ex-childhood actors and a few crack dealers. He's addicted, he's clean. He's addicted, he's clean. It's been a never ending saga for the talented actor. Foreboding to an eerie extent, Less Than Zero was the 1987 movie based on the novel by infamous author Brett Easton Ellis and starred Jami Gertz (Twister), Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie's II), and Robert Downey, Jr. as himself…err, I mean a drug addicted Beverly Hills brat. No, wait…I do mean himself. For the first time ever Fox has released this classic on DVD in a widescreen edition. Let's celebrate by sniffing six pounds of Christmas powder!

Facts of the Case

Welcome to wonderfully superficial world of Los Angeles. Here you can do anything you like—party, drink, snort every drug under the sun, and flush your life down the toilet faster than you can say "John Belushi!"

Three college friends are about to learn the tragic effects of drugs and wealth when Julian (Downey, Jr.), a charming, good looking rich boy, starts a drug habit that soon spirals out of control. When Clay (McCarthy) returns home from college he finds things have drastically changed for his model girlfriend Blair (Gertz) and best buddy Julian. Aside of Julian wooing Blair into bed while Clay was gone, both parties have also managed to rack up a drug habit that has thrown Julian $50,000 in the hole. Julian's dealer Rip (played with confined relish by James Spader, sex, lies, and videotape) is allegedly Julian's friend—but Rip is at the end of his rope with Julian's ongoing debt. Julian in turn attempts to collect some money from his uncle for a new nightclub and, as a last ditch effort, pleads with his already fractured father for help. All the while Clay watches his friend become a slave to their narcotics. Clay seems helpless to do anything for Julian; those who know people with drug problems know that they only way they can get help is when the truly want it. Sadly, Clay is almost stuck on the outside as he watches his friend slowly destroy his life. Julian has been in and out of rehab multiple times, though each time he bottoms out Julian swears that he will now go clean and sober.

Will Julian's crumbling life bring him and his friends crashing down? Or can he stay clean, if only for a moment?

The Evidence

Less Than Zero has a stark realism to it, and that's solely dependant on Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance. There is a strangeness in watching Downey perform here; you get the feeling that he's not just playing a character, but that he is that character. With Downey's current trials and tribulations splattered all over the entertainment headlines, it's hard to watch Less Than Zero and feel some empathy for such a sad and vacuous character.

I don't know what I was expecting when I popped Less Than Zero into my player. It's one of those rare '80s movies that I never caught when it came out on video. Maybe it looked too serious for a movie starring Andrew McCarthy (because, let's be honest, McCarthy isn't the pinnacle of seething drama). I was surprised to find this a rather powerful film with excellent performances all around.

The idea and concept behind Less Than Zero (which is based on Bret Easton Ellis' critically acclaimed book) is simple: drugs are a good way of taking down your life and the lives of those around you. I guess there's a sort of intrinsic irony that Hollywood made a movie about the dangers of drug use in Beverly Hills; it's almost as if the city of sin was putting out a warning to its own dysfunctional family.

While Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and James Spader all do a fine job with their roles, the fact is that this is Downey's show. With foaming desire, Downey exemplifies a typical drug addict down to his very core. He's a man who is so far gone that you feel simultaneous empathy and disgust. How do you save someone who has already jumped off the cliff? Every time the character exclaims that he is planning on going straight, you know that he's said this a million and one times, to no avail. His only help is in the form of McCarthy's character, but even he has his limitations—Clay's only line of defense is to pull Julian back from the abyss, even though in less than a day the odds are Julian will be peering into that hole again. Jami Gertz's superficial Blair is also no help—she has her own demons and addictions to deal with, including a freebase habit and a desire to always look good.

I lived in L.A. for a time. I have seen some of these characters at various parties and events. My heart always went out to them. Many have become cynical and skeptical. It's as if Hollywood is a place that sucks you down and never lets go. It is a strong person that can survive there while avoiding its treacherous lifestyle. Less Than Zero shows that it's not an easy game, and one that is often lost.

Less Than Zero is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a very good looking print by Fox. The only true imperfections I spotted were a few nicks and scratches in the print. Otherwise, the color levels look very bright and bold while the black levels are even and well saturated. The cinematography of this movie rivals that of an MTV video, but that's really the point—these people have no way of slowing down. I am glad to get this movie in a widescreen edition: any type of pan and scan would not have done the visuals justice.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 4.0 in English. This is a fairly nice audio track, though it lacks any real spaciousness. Most of this soundtrack is filtered through the front channel with a small amount of music coming from the rear speakers. For a movie from 1987, I was impressed with how clear this soundtrack sounds. The dialogue and effects are free of any distortion with some real kick put into the 1980s music (ah, ya just gotta love those Bangles). Also included on this disc is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track in English, a Dolby 2.0 Mono track in French, and subtitles in English and Spanish.

Less Than Zero is a staple from the '80s, so you'd think we might get some intriguing extra features. You'd have thought wrong. The only supplements available on the disc are three anamorphic theatrical trailers for the film, plus five TV spots and a "Fox Flix" promo trailer.

Closing Statement

Good looking people doing not-so-good things to their noses. Fun for the whole family. Less Than Zero isn't the greatest movie from the decade of decadence, but it is entertaining (and a wake up call for those looking to strike it rich in Tinseltown).

The Verdict

Less Than Zero is…well, it's all messed up. Time for rehab!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 87
Audio: 83
Extras: 62
Acting: 93
Story: 84
Judgment: 81

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Three Theatrical Trailers
• Five TV Spots


• IMDb

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