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January 14, 2011

As Downey Jr. tries to sober up for the day's shoot, McCarthy attempts a new expression called "pensiveness."

[This is a followup piece to the Top 50 post involving  Lazer Crystal, specifically how much their music sounds like the perfect soundtrack to drugging it up 80s-style. Unfortunately, this film gets both the music and the drugging it up completely wrong. So, rather than the nihilistic depravity of Ellis’ novel, we get Andrew “Jiminy Cricket” McCarthy and Poison covering KISS.]

Adapting the “unfilmable” Bret Easton Ellis to the big screen has always been a challenge. The first attempt was so poor it’s amazing that Rules of Attraction or American Psycho even got greenlit, much less critically acclaimed.

There are a number of reasons why Less Than Zero failed spectacularly, none of which are named Robert Downey, Jr. or James Spader:

The Political Climate
Of all the behind-the-scenes tinkering that went on, it was the attempt to appease the national anti-drug climate that did the most damage. The conversion of the protagonist into a sympathetic, moral character pleased nervous studio execs and the First Lady herself but was completely at odds with Ellis’ coke-fueled tale of amoral hedonism.

(Specifically, this was the era of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign which posited that only reason kids were doing drugs was because no one had mentioned it was ok to turn down offers from drug pushers.

Speaking of which, drug “pushers” only exist in the fevered waking dreams of PTL/PTC members and the sordid cartoon tales of Jack Chick. The infamous Chick tracts in particular paint everything and everyone in ridiculously broad black and white strokes. Drug pushers are nihilistic wraiths of pure evil and the users themselves fare even worse, being prone to prostitution, theft, homicide, child abuse and suicide, all within 15 2-frame pages. Definitely something everyone should check out at least once.

Chick was right about one thing: hippies are idiots.

Ever since the government began placing various substances on various schedules, it’s been a seller’s market. No dealer really has to push his product. The shit practically sells itself. Just ask Rick Ross, whose massive amount of blow must have sold itself while he was in prison. As a guard.

[Notable exception: the Recession of 2008 when drug dealers were cold-calling previous customers hoping to drum up some sales. This lack of interest would seem to indicate that a lot of people can actually just use drugs rather than only abuse them. If you can stop scoring just because it no longer fits in the budget then you don’t really have a problem. Some people drove less. Some people bought more generics. And some people, apparently, bought less coke.]

/digression)

The Soundtrack
While it is very much a snapshot of the charts (Poison, Public Enemy, Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.), it is not in any way a good soundtrack, having more in common with Patrick Bateman’s avidly mainstream music collection than anything cutting edge or, indeed, fitting. Had the movie been made with any intelligence, we might have found some irony in the tracklisting. As it is, it reeks of calculation and demographic gladhanding, much like the film’s staunchly anti-drug message.

McCarthy tries (and fails) to produce more charisma than his tie.

Andrew McCarthy
McCarthy grabbed the starring role based on his work as the lead in Mannequin,a phrase that has never been deployed since. Bringing with him all the tabula rasa charisma that allowed him to portray a showroom dummy, McCarthy blands up the action with his tiring sincerity and an acting range that stretches from emotionless to a mild brow furrow when called upon to express something other than “warm body.”

Jamie Gertz adds nothing herself except some additional repressed awkwardness. The combination of these two leads’ sexual magnetism (we’re adding negatives at this point) adds a disturbing layer of self-consciousness to their sex scenes, coating these set pieces with a sheen of nervous sweat.

Nothing says "hot" like two people who look like that have no idea what the fuck they're doing.

It doesn’t help that the movie tries to have it both ways, pouring inordinate amounts of shoehorned morality all over the insincere hedonism. The principals go at it like two valedictorians attempting to slum it on Frat Row, conjuring images of your parents getting juiced and banging each other on the balcony of their Disneyworld hotel room.

McCarthy and Gertz never acted so hard in their lives, an effort which shows through clearly during these “passionate” moments. It creates a sense of empathetic embarrassment in the audience with their every sweaty maneuver being somehow less erotic than coke fiend Downey’s desperation mens room blowjobs. It all becomes like a trip to an American nudist colony where your initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened by the realization that the people who most want to run around naked are also the people who you most want to see with way more clothes on.

All in all, this travesty was enough to cause Bret Easton Ellis to disown it, distancing himself from the half-assed “message movie” that rose malformed from his breakthrough piece of narcissitic nihilism.

(Interestingly enough, Ellis’ sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms has given him hope of a cast reunion. Unfortunately, he wants McCarthy and Gertz as well:

“Easton Ellis is hoping that a movie would reunite Spader, McCarthy, Jamie Gertz and others – and, after Robert Downey Jr.’s well-chronicled substance-abuse difficulties and subsequent triumph over them, feels that the recent Oscar-nominee could bring something special to a second turn as Julian Wells.”

Hellfire.)

-CLT

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6 comments

  1. I would love LOVE to see Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader recreate their roles of Julian and Rip, but the other two…no thank you! I always thought that Downey and Spader had great chemistry together and really wish they had done more than two movies together.


    • I’d pay to see Spader and Downey, Jr. get back together for this. If they all have to come back (and apparently B.E. Ellis seems to think they should), hopefully the focus shifts to the talented half of the cast.

      Looking back I almost find Spader’s character to be almost sympathetic. Sure, he’s a prick but if he doesn’t get paid even worse things are going to done to him by other, more evil pricks. Drugs ain’t free, kids. Not even in those so-called “drug-free zones” that keep popping up everywhere.


  2. I remember when that movie first came out I thought that Robert Downey Jr. was related to Morton Downey Jr. because at that age I thought everybody with the same last name was related, I guess. Even back then though you could see the Downey was both totally fucked in the game and the only one with any real talent. And although he always plays himself, I’ve always liked Spader. He is the perfect asshole.


    • Not that they look anything alike but it seems like it might be true. You look at Morton and think, “Wow, no wonder Robert’s so fucked up.”. And bam! Just like fundamentalists writing textbooks, you’ve instantly revised history.

      Spader does play a great asshole, so much that I’ve just assumed he is one in real life.


  3. Would they have had somebody who knew the drug world inside out, say a Lemmy, the music might have reflected the real world better.


    • Good point, J5. Or maybe if they had consulted someone who actually cared about music rather than major label A&R types.

      Lemmy’s selections might have been a bit brutal for a film like this. I can almost imagine his soundtrack combining the new wave of British heavy metal with personal favorites like 14 minutes of Can doing God knows what and choice bits from Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.”



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