For the film charts Julian's coke-fuelled descent from It boy to rent-boy. As he gets deeper into debt with Spader's drug dealer, Clay and Blair make repeated futile attempts to save him, first from himself and then the heavies. Clay pleads with him to go back to college with him. Blair vacillates annoyingly over which one she prefers. People brood and emote a lot behind Ray Bans. It's all very stylishly shot, for instance the scene where the three stare meaningfully at each other across one of their parents' swimming pools, their faces bathed in the shimmering light reflected from the surface of the water. Oh, they've got more money than sense, but the poor darlings come from such dysfunctional families, you know. Blair's father is constantly trading in his trophy wife for a younger model. Julian's dad cares more about his acres of tennis balls than his son. No wonder the boy's so disaffected, and keeps snorting all the money daddy gives him, poor love.
Less Than Zero is based on the book by Brett Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, but that novel's multiple murderer and mutilator Patrick Bateman is more of a likeable character than these three vacuous wastes of space put together. The film works best in the scenes that are pure Easton Ellis, such as the well-bred young ladies who 'powder their noses' so thoroughly that one of them has to demurely laugh off a nosebleed. Oh, the embarrassment...
While the film revels in the glossy crowd scenes, exposing the profligacy and conspicuous consumption of the hyper rich, it fails to inspire the slightest sympathy for its main protagonists, whose self-indulgent antics only serve to nauseate and irritate. Even Clay, supposedly the innocent, the caring yuppie puppy with a heart of gold, gives us little reason to care what happens to him or his companions. In this role, McCarthy delivers his trademark 'boy-next-door' act, but his smile, calculated to be cute and beguiling, seems smug in the context of his character's vast wealth. His sex scenes with Jami Gertz have a queasy feeling to them, not uncommon in teen movies of that era (remember that one about Rebecca De Mornay popping Tom Cruise's cherry and setting up a brothel in his parents' home, anyone?). As for Gertz, with but one facial expression, she lets her hairstyle do the talking. As Robert Downey Jr declines, her coiffure changes from a nasty perm to one of those quiffs that teenage girls used to wear in the late 1980s. James Spader does his usual sleaze bag act to perfection.
And finally, there's Robert Downey Jr. With his Goth-like eyeliner and Morrisey-esque rose-printed shirt (that he never takes off), is he meant to represent an Oscar Wilde-like martyr to excess? Alas, this is a role he has subsequently played a little too well in real life. Perhaps that's why his desperation and self-destructive compulsion makes his one of the few convincing performances in the film. But his miserable fate still leaves you thinking, so what?
If you can set aside such reservations, Less Than Zero can be viewed as an entertaining slice of retro, offering a fascinating insight into the lifestyles and hairstyles of Reagan's children.