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Less Than Zero
20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 94 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz experiment with the Duran Duran Music Video Construction Kit.
These days, films about the darkíníseedy world of drug users are commonplace, and pull no punches in dealing with the bleak results of addiction to and obsession with the various substances that some use for entertainment and others adopt as a way of life. Indeed, even telemovies and TV series episodes are able to depict the dark side like it (more or less) is, freed from the ridiculous constraints of only a few short years ago when censors generally assumed that if someone saw drug use on the screen theyíd instantly be dragged down into the belly of the beast. When Richard Lowensteinís 1987 cult film Dogs in Space was released, censors slapped it with an R rating solely because of a single scene that they presumed would send every single viewer rushing to their nearest heroin dealer; that same year, Less Than Zero also scored the age-restricting R rating, the censors who viewed the film obviously missing the fact that it was, essentially, an anti-drug story. That rating was relaxed later to an M, which stands to this day, but the discrepancy speaks volumes about the naÔve attitudes of the time.
Less Than Zero is ostensibly based on the book of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, though fans of that manís written work wonít find much thatís familiar here. Thatís nothing new; this was Ellisís first book and the first of them to be filmed, but the authorís patchwork style was never going to translate to the screen with much success. Instead, a linear story based around three central characters has been fashioned out of Ellisís material by screenwriter Harley Peyton (who would go on to write and produce many episodes of the legendary TV series Twin Peaks and, more recently, the movie Bandits).
Julian (Robert Downey Jr) in panic mode.
Clay (Andrew McCarthy), Julian (Robert Downey Jr) and Blair (Jami Gertz) are the closest of friends, and as we meet them theyíre graduating from high school amidst much celebration and hope for the future. Julian in particular is full of wide-eyed dreams, his proud father happily financing his ambitious plan to start a record company; Clay, meanwhile, is off to college. Heís assumed Blair will come with him but, as we learn by way of atmospheric black and white flashbacks, thatís not how it worked out. Instead, she decided to stay in LA and pursue work as a model, but when Clay returns for a surprise visit, he finds her in bed with Julian. As the main story begins, Clay returns to LA once more at the request of Blair, who he hopes is ready to resume their relationship. But what he sees on his arrival is disturbing; Blair is a vacant, distracted mess whose only concern seems to be to get Clay to talk to Julian, whose drug use and life, she says, is out of control. Sheís right, too; Julianís record company plan fell through and as he took refuge more and more in drugs to compensate, his life collapsed. His father has all but disowned him, and heís deeply in debt to a decidedly sleazy dealer (James Spader, who made a career out of this sort of role). Clay now has to make a choice - to help his former friends, or to leave them to fend for themselves and focus on his college career.
Suffused by the look and feel of the late Ď80s - but in a somewhat more uncomfortably authentic way than the rose-coloured Ď80s revival movies of today - Less Than Zero is no longer the shock to the system it once was. Since its release weíve all seen countless morality tales about drugs, and this oneís simple storyline and predictability now work against it. The casting is decent enough: McCarthy is appropriately preppy, not surprisingly, and Spader is his usual watchably icky self. But itís Robert Downey Jr who owns the film; his personal problems in recent years have overshadowed the fact, be he always was (and still is) a brilliant actor, and his all-or-nothing portrayal of Julian here is realistic and compelling. The direction - by Marek Kanievska, who would not make another film for 13 years after this - is stylish and slick, just as youíd expect from a film about the era, and the cinematography is stylish (itís by Ed Lachman, an amazing talent who today is highly in demand on movies big and small; he also co-directed the controversial Ken Park).
As a nostalgia trip, Less Than Zero is quite an eyeful (just be careful that all the big hair doesnít have your eye out!) But as cutting-edge drama, itís become dulled with time and today is more of a curiosity that few of the filmís target age group today will relate to.
Blair (Jami Gertz) demonstrates how exciting cocaine can be.
Fox has commissioned a new 16:9 transfer of Less Than Zero for DVD, and while the result isnít perfect, itís the best the film has ever looked on home video. With the matte slightly opened up at top and bottom, the 1.78:1 transfer preserves the cinematographerís intended framing. The down side - inevitable for a film as unlikely to shift units as this one - is that no restoration work has been done on the source materials. As a result, there are some sections where there is rather extreme grain and very visible scratches and nicks (in particular, the first black and white flashback sequence). Throughout there are occasional dust flecks and the odd scratch, but generally these are very minor and most people wonít even see them.
The transfer itself is very good when the conditions are right, with superb colour saturation (VERY important in this case!), good black levels and shadow detail, and a nice crisp look without excessive use of digital sharpening.
A dual-layered disc has been used here, though with the tiniest amount of extra compression (or the loss of one of the four non-English soundtracks) it would easily have fit a single layer. Regardless, there arenít any compression problems; there rarely are with Fox titles.
Being in LA, Julian insists on out-Blairing Blair.
The original Dolby Stereo matrixed surround audio is reproduced here the way such tracks always should be on DVD - as four discrete channels (left, centre, right and a single surround). Note that this is not a ďremixĒ - itís simply a copy of the original four-channel mix before it was matrix-encoded. This is something thatís almost always possible when transferring surround soundtracks - the four-track masters invariably exist in the vaults - but Fox is one of the only companies that seems willing to do so.
Fidelity is reasonably good, with centre-channel dialogue clear (if sometimes a little over-processed) and the left and right speakers handling the music and effects. The music score by Thomas Newman is very effective - rather than use an orchestra, heís done a pseudo-orchestral score using electronic instruments (probably a Kurzweil or Synclavier) and it comes up well here. The rock songs were chosen by producer Rick Rubin, whoís shamelessly gotten several of his own productions prominent positioning in the soundtrack. The end credits song, meanwhile, is an unlikely collaboration between dark rock-metal legend Glen Danzig and crooner Roy Orbison - one of the last things Orbison recorded before his death the following year.
Surround use is extremely minimal, which is completely normal for a matrixed surround soundtrack of this era. Discrete surround effects were very rarely used until the arrival of Dolby Digital.
Weíd like to say there are less than zero extras on this disc, but unfortunately thatís impossible. Instead, weíll have to settle for zero. Since this is a budget-priced title, thatís not a liability, though itís worth pointing out that the US release (also budget) included trailers and TV spots, and while thereís a ton of room for them on this disc, theyíre missing in action.
A film very much of its time, Less Than Zero isnít going to shock anyone today, but while as a whole it comes up short, thereís plenty here worth seeing, both on the technical side and in the performance of Robert Downey Jr. Foxís budget-priced DVD, while not perfect, is more than satisfactory.