Failing to Merge: Less Than Zero


Though an author, Bret East Ellis is the predecessor to the likes of contemporary dramatic filmmakers like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, those who have brought to the screen a startling (and at least in Van Sant’s case, very stereotypical and monolithic) view of extreme teen apathy. Ellis’ 1985 novel, which captures the mood of the decade, Less Than Zero centers on vaguely connected, college-age friends and trust-fund babies in Los Angeles. Their world lacks any real human emotion, any real human connection to one another, whether friends or family. Their concerns and legacies trivial, a fantastic reality of youth corrupted by uber-urban materialism. This, the 1980s. 

College freshman Clay returns to Los Angeles from New Hampshire on Christmas break and the novel is told from his point of view, but its stream-of-consciousness descriptions of mundane events feel more like a diary of dull consistency. The routine of parties, drugs, and gossip. But the theme, the significance of this particular book become clear about half way through; just before the point where the reader might be ready to give up on the really unglamorous life of people who believe themselves to be truly glamorous. And it is Clay who is acutely aware of this, his insulation in the East Coast life has made the West Coast one alien, though from the flashback passages, it already had been before he left for college. The book’s commentators appropriately draw comparisons to Salinger, saying that Clay is the modern Holden Caulfield. By the end of the film, there are no redeemable characters, no one worth Clay trying to save.

Somehow, by the hand of screenwriter Harley Peyton and director Marek Kanievska, these crucial social criticisms of the self-centered 1980s (or just privelege in general) mutated into a 1987 anti-drug movie starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader, among others. Clearly, the casting of some of the loosely connected “Brat Pack”–which should have included Jami Gertz and James Spader (who was much older than the others) among its named ranks–it is a star vehicle, and the intentions of which seem to transcend the material from which it is adapted.

McCarthy, as Clay, is summoned by former girlfriend, Blair, returns home for Christmas with the plea that he help save their friend, Julian (Downey, Jr.), burned by lofty ambition and suffering the peak of a cocaine addiction. While just as conceited and oblivious as the rest of the people Clay encounters in the novel, here, Blair invokes a kind of sympathy. She is Jami Gertz afterall and this is a Hollywood production, so there isn’t much to expect to be unresolved, and particularly, in any morally ambiguous conclusion (though interestingly, this is what happens in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which somewhat takes on the same subject of young privelege, but as Asian youth). The movie tries to impose on the characters an understanding of the rights and wrongs in which they exist, but what made the book so shocking was that its characters–at least outside of its nearly non-chalant observer, Clay–never seemed to possess any awareness of these things. There was never an alternative to force any of them to consider it, as there was in the movie. McCarthy’s version of Clay as the impatient hero, or Gertz, or even Julian’s parents who had nearly given up on their son but in the end, urge for their son’s reform in order to finally reunite. Never did such compassion exist in the book, and by the end, it’s relieving when Clay abandons the world he had only left for a short while, but even when he was there, felt so alien.

As an anti-drug movie, Less Than Zero (the film version) faces competition by two films that better approached the coke-addiction 1980s: Bright Lights, Big City (also a wonderful novel by Jay McInerny) and the 1988 Michael Keaton and Morgan Freeman drama, Clean & Sober. Given this, it is no surprise that Ellis would comment that there was no connection between the film and the book, despite the loose connection of character names and situations. He never goes as far as Paddy Chayefsky did to disavow himself of the film as was done with the early 1980s adaptation of Chayefksy’s novel, Altered States. Rather, Ellis was kinder with his reaction: “Due to all the liberties taken, Ellis refused to see the movie. In a recent interview with Amazon.com, Ellis stated that he has warmed up to the movie, and appreciates it visually as a snapshot of a particular time. Ellis claimed that there was no connection between the book and the movie, except for the title and the names of the characters” (from the Wiki article).

Ellis, in January 2008, suggested penning a sequel to Less Than Zero, to be titled Imperial Bedrooms, named for an Elvis Costello album. The movie is, as obvious from the post above, worth skipping. Pick up the novel instead for a quick read, but lasting effect.

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