Less Than Zero (1987): Marek Kanievska’s Youth and Drugs Drama, Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy (Gay Cinema)

Marek Kanievska, who made some impression with his feature debut, Another Country, followed up with the youth and drug-driven drama Less Than Zero, loosely based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Less Than Zero
Less than zero 1987 poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film stars Andrew McCarthy as Clay, a college freshman returning home for Christmas to spend time with his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and his friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who is also a drug addict. The film presents a look at the culture of wealthy, decadent youth in Los Angeles.

Less Than Zero received mixed reviews among critics, especially after Ellis initially claimed that the film bears little or no resemblance to his novel and  that it was miscast (with the exceptions of Downey and Spader).

Andrew McCarthy is miscast as Clay Easton, a straitlaced college freshman on the East Coast who returns home to Los Angeles for Christmas to find things very different from the way he left them. His high school girlfriend and now model, Blair (Jami Gertz), has become addicted to cocaine and is sexually involved with his school best friend, Julian Wells (Robert Downey Jr.).

Julian, whose life has gone downhill after his startup record company fell apart, is a drug addict. He is also cut off by his family for stealing money and almost reduced to homelessness.

Making Julian’s life worse is the fact that he’s hassled by his dealer, old classmate Rip (James Spader), for a debt of $50,000. As Clay’s relationship with Blair rekindles, Julian’s behavior becomes volatile, and his addiction worsens.  Rip forces him to become a prostitute to work off the debt.

After a night of withdrawal and hiding from Rip, Julian decides to quit and begs his father (Nicholas Pryor) for help. But Rip doesn’t believe it when Julian tells Rip about his  sobriety plan. Rip soon lures Julian back into drugs and pimping at a Christmas party for affluent gays in Palm Springs.

The climax depicts a violent confrontation with Rip and henchman, after which Clay, Julian and Blair escape in a long drive through the desert. Sadly, the next day Julian dies from heart failure.

After Julian’s funeral, Clay and Blair are reminiscing about Julian. Clay then asks Blair to return with him to the East Coast.

Bret Ellis’ amoral nihilistic story was sanitized by the studio, which removed Kanievska and didn’t approve of his cut. Early test screenings indicated that viewers really hated Downey Jr.’s character, and didn’t relate to the two romantic leads either.  As noted, Andrew McCarthy was completely miscast.

As a result, new scenes were shot to make McCarthy and Jami Gertz’s characters more repentant and sympathetic, and the piece’s tone lighter. To please audiences, a new–compromisingly pointless–ending was tucked upon, a high school graduation scene showing the three good friends during better times.

Made on a budget of 8 million, Less Than Zero was a commercial disappointment, earning only $12 million at the box-office.


Directed by Marek Kanievska
Produced by Jon Avnet, Jordan Kerner

Screenplay by Harley Peyton, based on Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography Edward Lachman
Edited by Peter E. Berger, Michael Tronick

Production companies: 20th Century Fox; Avnet/Kerner Productions

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: November 6, 1987 (US)

Running time: 98 minutes
Budget $8 million
Box office $12.4 million