Cult Movie: Less Than Zero lays bare the pointless pursuit of cool in 1980s LA

Robert Downey Jr in Less Than Zero
Ralph McLean

IT'S hard to imagine a movie more 80s than Less Than Zero. Cold, aloof and all surface rather than content, it pretty much sums up the decade that humanity forgot in film form.

Based, very loosely it must be said, on Brett Easton Ellis's debut novel and sharing its name with a 1977 single by Elvis Costello, Less Than Zero is a movie about the desperate emptiness of Los Angeles life in that era of greed, drugs and escalating affluence.

As such, watching director Marek Kanievska's film does feel like viewing a perfect time capsule of 1987, the year it was released, even if the whole thing does leave you feeling hollow and unfulfilled by the end.

Andrew McCarthy is Clay, a straight-laced yuppie who left the cocaine-crazed world of LA to go to college. He's lured back to the city by a frantic phone message from his old girlfriend Blair (Jamie Gertz) who is worried about the health of their mutual friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr) who is spiralling downwards into full-blown drug addiction.

Despite the fact that Blair had cheated on him with Julian just weeks after he left for college, Clay returns to try and help his old friend. What he finds is a city steeped in the stupor of a coke epidemic and it's how he negotiates his way around LA and the fake friendships and lazy drug-fuelled apathy of the yuppie community that lies at the cold, empty heart of this cautionary tale.

Clay stays off the drugs but gets in too deep trying to help the frankly helpless Julian who has blown all the cash his rich father has given him to break into the record industry right up his nose and is now fearing for his life as his dealer Rip (James Spader) moves in for the kill.

Far from being a hectoring lecture on drug misuse, Less Than Zero lets the wasted youth of LA with their meaningless pursuit of cool take centre stage. Robert Downey Jr clearly didn't learn much from the sordid setting and tale of drug dependency stripping everyone of their drive and dynamism, though. His own drug demons had yet to do their worst to him by 87 and it's hard not to see his ravaged portrayal of a hopeless junkie as being a little glimpse into the future Marvel star's darkest days.

Fans of 80s chic will love the garish fashions and the thumping period soundtrack – that includes The Bangles racing through their update of Simon And Garfunkel's Hazy Shade Of Winter but strangely no sign of Costello's title-inspiring tune – while everyone else can just shudder at that superficial sheen that made the era so slick and soulless.

More than anything, though, this is an attempt to mock the utter pointlessness of LA party culture, a lost howl into the dark for a generation cut adrift. This is wasted youth flailing around pointlessly trying to feel like they mean something and as such it's still got plenty to say about society today.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: