Less Than Zero

D: Marek Kanievska (1987)
with Jami Gertz, Andrew McCarthy, Robert Downey, Jr., James Spader

Bright Lights, Big City

D: James Bridges (1988)
with Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Dianne Wiest,
Swoosie Kurtz

River's Edge

D: Tim Hunter (1986)
with Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, Ione Skye, Daniel Roebuck, Dennis Hopper

The ghost of things to come: Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr., and Andrew McCarthy in Less Than Zero

The whole Christmas/New Year thing always throws me into a bit of a funk. The holidays never seem to live up to my expectations. The new year always brings a mental reckoning of the old year, all of its few past glories and bitter disappointments. And then there is the winter thing, days where the sun just never seems to rise and the days are gray and dead. This year, however, I decided to not wallow in my annual bleak mood and take swift action. What better way to do so than to rent a few movies filled with people whose lives are decidedly more disappointing, living through the end of a decade that started with a bang and ended with a greed-filled whimper?

Less Than Zero, based on a Brett Easton Ellis novel, is a flick that recently became prophetic in its casting. Robert Downey, Jr. gives a rip-roaring performance as the perpetually fucked-up Julian, a mere whisper of what was to come for this amazing actor who later gave great performances in Chaplin and the underrated Heart and Souls. Julian is the perfect example of a child whose Beverly Hills parents decided to replace quality time with large sums of cash, a disease that also plagues Julian's two best friends, Clay (Andrew McCarthy) and Blair (Jami Gertz). The plot, such as it is, revolves around Clay and Blair trying to save Julian from his dealer, a part that is made for James Spader's cool menace, while Clay tries to convince Blair that she needs to get away from the excesses of Southern California. The trio hops from coke-fueled Christmas party filled with pretty, plastic people to, well, more coke-fueled Christmas parties filled with more pretty, plastic people. While Less Than Zero is not a great movie, it certainly is a good one. Visually memorable scenes abound, most of which have become fodder for the soundtrack's videos, including the classic snippet of McCarthy and Gertz necking in a Corvette convertible while an endless fleet of motorcycles zooms by. Each member of the cast gives a great performance, even McCarthy, who usually seems to be doing an Al Gore impersonation. You actually begin to care about these spoiled kids who are trying to numb themselves from the slightest pain with a wide range of pharmaceuticals. But, like a wild night on the town, it's hard to remember or care what actually happened after a good night's sleep.

Bright Lights, Big City doesn't even have that much going for it. First, Michael J. Fox is a thoroughly unbelievable coke-head/writer who can't find his words since his wife left him. Second, Phoebe Cates as Fox's wife brings new meaning to the word "vapid." Third, director Bridges breaks the standard storytelling rule — show, don't tell — for no real good reason and relies on hokey symbolism to get across an obvious point. Fourth, this movie has no soundtrack worth mentioning. None. A few scenes simply scream for some kind of brilliant sonic underscoring, only to be given wimpy jazz and dance club covers. Blah. There are a few — very few — highlights, though Dianne Wiest steals the screen as Fox's dying mom. The two have a heartbreaking scene near the movie's end that makes it almost worth sitting through the preceeding drivel. Swoozie Kurtz and Kiefer Sutherland fill out their supporting roles, despite the fact that their characters have been given little to do, and David Hyde Pierce, extremely pre-Fraiser, makes a brief, uncredited appearance as a bartender.

Going from Bright Lights, Big City to River's Edge is a move from the clichéd ridiculous to the sublime. River's Edge is a great movie. Based on a true story, the general plot is straightforward — stoner guy kills stoner girlfriend, leaves her body by the river, and brags to all of his stoner buds — but there are darker undercurrents that stir up thoughts about the disillusionment of youth, the devaluation of women, and the death of Sixties idealism. Director Hunter is a whiz at pacing and keeps the plot rolling while he further muddies the waters with his intriguing montages. You can't help but get sucked into the world of these characters, whose lives are orchestrated by Crispin Glover's Layne, who sounds like Perry Farrell and lives on a steady diet of speed and weed. Daniel Roebuck is wonderfully creepy as Samson, the slow-eyed and slow-witted killer. As painful as it is to admit, Keanu Reeves, young enough to have the barest traces of peach-fuzz on his upper lip, gives a solid performance, proving once again that he plays burn-outs very, very well. Of course, Dennis Hopper's Feck is like Dennis Hopper's anything else — spacy, edgey, and odd.

Sometimes a perspective check and a glimpse into the lives of those more bewildered is all that it takes to shake off a Yuletide funk. It's a pleasant reminder that my life could be decidedly worse: I could have to sit through Bright Lights, Big City every night until the turn of the century.

— Adrienne Martini

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