Friday, November 28, 2014

Unorthodox Christmas: Less than Zero (1987)

I finally have the perfect excuse to discuss this movie...

Every year during Christmas time, we all have our classics and traditions that we tune into every year. Whether they're on DVD, recorded VHS or on cable.
Movies like "A Christmas Carol," "Miracle on 34th street," "It's a Wonderful Life" and anything produced by Rankin/Bass incorporated.

One could argue that "It's a Wonderful Life" isn't your conventional Christmas movie. In fact, it's a prime example of why it can potentially be one of the most depressing times of the year. But it's so beloved AS a Christmas movie that I'm not sure I'd consider it "Unorthodox."

So how does one define "unorthodox Christmas?" It's a movie that takes place during the Christmas season, but doesn't necessarily cater to the THEMES of Christmas.

Less than Zero
Based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis
[for my thoughts on the original novel, the adaptation and its sequel, visit:]
Clay- Andrew McCarthy
Blair- Jamie Gertz
Julian Wells- Robert Downey Jr. [his first role with the "Jr." added]
Rip- James Spader [*click-click* finger gun locked and loaded]...

Where's the Christmas?
Yeah, before I get too ahead of myself....
"Less Than Zero" technically is a Christmas movie because it takes place during the Christmas holiday. And there's a scene where "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-DMC can be heard on the radio....
There's gotta be a sick joke in here somewhere... that Jimmy Stewart didn't attempt suicide in "It's a Wonderful Life" because of $8000 missing in his bank... he did it after seeing this movie because the ending goes beyond "run-of-the-mill depressing"
But then maybe I was poking fun at myself. Except that the ending sucked the life force out of me...

A fateful night 15 years in the making...

As far back as I can remember, this is a movie I have wanted to see.
Thanks to a recorded VHS full of MTV music videos and one of them happened to be "Hazy Shade of Winter" by The Bangles... the song was so eerie and spooky that I couldn't get enough of it. I remember one day watching through the VHS and I had to rewind to watch it twice. I brought this up a couple times and my mom said it was a weird movie.

I could only assume that meant it involved sex and drugs. With drugs especially prevalent. I barely skimmed over the cast list maybe once or twice... I recognized Andrew McCarthy from "Weekend at Bernie's" and maybe 1-2 other movies, but I can't remember whether I came into it knowing Robert Downey Jr. was part of it.

The fateful night was Friday, February 4th 2011 at midnight. I learned it was scheduled after sitting through "The Adventure of Ford Farlaine" the night before. I watched that for all of Morris Day's 10 minutes on screen :P decent, but certainly not genius filmmaking.

The Story- in a nutshell
[screw the spoiler alert, RDJ dies at the end].

It all starts out so promising...
The three main characters are graduating high school. Originally, Clay and Blair would be moving in together with Julian starting work as a record producer. Right away, though, two things fall apart. Blair changes her mind about moving to the east coast and Clay catches her and Julian in bed together when he's visiting for Thanksgiving.
As a result, he hadn't spoken to either of them for nearly a month.

Cue the music...
and I could not have been more disappointed with the way they incorporated "Hazy Shade of Winter"... there's no darkness or fog machines... it's broadcast in daylight, following Clay as he's driving in his car to his house.

Clay plays his answering machine and Blair tells him he needs to come back. He reluctantly agrees. And quickly learns that [yikes my chest is already tightening] Julian is in big trouble. Not only did his job fall through, but he's now a drug addict barely hanging on. We also see throughout that Blair is addicted to snorting, but she's slightly better at hiding her problems.

Aside from Julian's personal demons, the movie's main antagonist is his drug dealer, Rip. He's accumulated a $50,000 debt and the only means of resolving it is working as a male prostitute for him. All the while, he keeps him hooked on drugs so he has no choice but to keep coming back.

The Negatives

Overall, this movie is really horrible filmmaking for the 80's :P I'm not afraid to admit that about it. It was promoted as a Brat Pack movie since all the main actors have previously worked with John Hughes.

  • Andrew McCarthy and James Spader- Pretty in Pink
  • Jamie Gertz- Sixteen Candles (all of maybe 10 minutes of total screentime)
  • Robert Downey Jr.- Weird Science (plus his work with Molly Ringwald in "The Pick-up Artist")

Like "St. Elmo's Fire," it's a more grown-up Brat Pack movie [unaffiliated with John Hughes]... but "St. Elmo's Fire" has a lot more going for it. The characters are better written. The stories are slightly more exciting and the ending... well, that's it's own subheading...

I think after the first hour, I was having reservations of staying up to see the rest. Just because there was no excitement. Nothing that really grabbed me or held my attention.

Clay and Blair don't exactly have great chemistry to begin with, but they spent the majority of their shared screen time having sex. I realize they hadn't been with each other in a long time, but C'MON...
That's not exactly good character development. At least not in my opinion.
Only "The Kids Are All Right" and "Bel Ami" surpass it the degree of awkwardness (mainly because a) nudity or b) its use being prolific and unnecessary to the overall plot).

In effect, RDJ was the only one saved this movie for me... and has since prevented me from ever wishing to sit through it again...

The Ending

Blair did eventually see the light about her own addiction. And Clay maintained himself as the only character not affiliated with drugs. To this day, I still find him the best looking member of the "official" Brat Pack
[never mind that I don't like many of RDJ's 80's movies, he only has a "satellite" membership cuz he had a supporting role in "Weird Science" and starred alongside other members in non-John Hughes 80's movies]
But regardless, I didn't care enough about their characters at this point that where they wound up is of little consequence.

I will say this about Blair, though... I envy her strength in Julian's gut-wrenching withdrawal scene. Robert's acting here was so realistic, I was as awed as I was terrified. And I mean, TERRIFIED. She'd been through this with him several times before, but finally Clay gets to see for himself why Blair called him back.

In his following scene, Julian sees his father and asks if he can come home. He agrees but only if he can stay clean for a week. Another great scene with great acting. When it was on YouTube, I watched it a few extra times [until it was removed for copyright infringement].

Naturally, the next place he goes is back to Rip, saying [for probably the 100th time] he's done with him... but of course, Rip doesn't agree...
Clay has to rescue Julian one more time, running off with him and Blair... the next morning, they wake up to find him dead... likely from one final shot of cocaine at the gas station..

And Roy Orbison's "Fade Away" plays to the text crawl that is the ending credits.

(the last time we saw him alive... AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH... [crying hysterically])

The Aftermath

During the entire text crawl, I was curled up in a ball slowly crying my eyes out. And once in bed, I cried/borderline-sobbed myself to sleep. Most of the next day, I was practically comatose.
Once I snapped out of it, I did two things:
1) read Robert Downey Jr's Wikipedia page and
2) wrote everything I felt in hopes of processing them

I was already a fan of his thanks to Tropic Thunder, Iron-Man and Sherlock Holmes... but I never read his entire biography before. [Previously, I merely skimmed it]. The withdrawal scene was so hard to watch (and Julian's sequential death harder to accept) that I had to find out if his addiction was ever THAT serious.
The short answer for that is "no."
He'd spent a couple years in jail, been arrested multiple times, had multiple relapses and was once found asleep in someone's laundry room... but my worst fears were nowhere to be found.

I did sit through the movie another time. A month later on YouTube. But after the father-son reconciliation scene, I stopped watching. I knew I wouldn't survive that ordeal again.
Which brings me to my reaction...

Per my personal opinion, I believe Julian had a chance at a happy ending. He could have survived to see the end of the movie... if he never went back to Rip.
I don't care how much he attempts to "rationalize" his actions, saying that anyone else would have cut Julian off ages ago and he was doing him a favor...
I blamed the drug dealer for Julian's death, not him. I realize he owes him money, but he didn't have to get him hooked on drugs again. He knew Julian wouldn't have the willpower to resist.
And maybe I should hold out some of my ire for Clay. He could have come with Julian to back him up. Knowing all that he knows about the situation, he should have had the foresight to accompany him.  [Oddly, he's the only member of the cast other than RDJ (obviously) I don't carry ANY hostility toward as a result of this misadventure].

But the fact remains: I will forever hold James Spader responsible for Julian's death. Anytime I see his face, I tilt my hand sideways.
I'm just relieved that Iron-Man will survive Ultron's wrath to be in the next "Captain America" movie and more Avengers movies... otherwise, I'd have to point my finger gun at myself.

I survived "Less than Zero" because it took place 25 years ago and Robert Downey Jr. has been clean for 10 years.

I also took the movie so seriously, I started 7 works of fanfiction involving Julian. Their lengths vary from 253 to 18000 words.
All but one (dubbed "Eulogy for Julian") have one fact in common: Julian survives his "Less than Zero" ordeal and the story begins with him being far from his problems in LA. Three of which, my character is the one who saves him. And by saving him, I mean supporting him in rehab to make sure he doesn't completely give up on himself.

[I have one more fanfiction idea in reserve... if James Spader kills Robert Downey Jr in another movie, I'm going to need to vent... or possibly commit myself cuz I'll have gone insane]

As for my research, I went through all his movies (including spoilers) and determined which are worth watching. I'd since made multiple exceptions that went on to surprise me.
"Natural Born Killers" is the only one I've resolved to stay away from. Not just because he gets killed, but also because it's an Oliver Stone film... I don't get along well with his movies in general.


(I still have the lyrics of "Hazy Shade of Winter" posted on my wall, complete with the epitaph for Julian)

Aside from the obvious, my status going from fan to fangirl literally overnight, the biggest thing I got from "Less than Zero" was my inclination to believe the best in people whenever I can.
Drug addiction still scares the hell out of me, but I'm liable to believe it's something that can be conquered... as long as all the right conditions are in place.
I'm also more liable to remember those celebrity addicts who lost their battles for the times that brought me joy than for how they left us.
And those lucky enough TO recover, they have my support and inclination to focus on the positives.

If I'm ever lucky enough to meet Robert Downey Jr. and get the chance to have a conversation with him, I won't focus on his past troubles beyond these two questions:
1) How come "Less than Zero" didn't scare you away from addiction?
2) Considering how your time with "Ally McBeal" ended, is it a venture you look back on proudly or with regret?

...once that's out of the way, we can talk movies and discuss his album.
Everyone else still harps on the negative, so I want to make it my duty to not be one of those people.

I realize my "dream scenario" sounds crazy, but at least I have a clear idea about it ;)

It's still a reach, but 8 days ago, I found the tiniest reason to believe it's a possibility.

No comments: