Less Than Zero (film)

Last updated
Less Than Zero
Less than zero 1987 poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Marek Kanievska
Produced by Jon Avnet
Jordan Kerner
Marvin Worth
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
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • November 6, 1987 (1987-11-06)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8 million
Box office$12.4 million [1]

Less Than Zero is a 1987 American drama film very loosely based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel of the same name. 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.

In film and television, drama is a genre of narrative fiction intended to be more serious than humorous in tone. Drama of this kind is usually qualified with additional terms that specify its particular subgenre, such as "police crime drama", "political drama", "legal drama", "historical period drama", "domestic drama", or "comedy-drama". These terms tend to indicate a particular setting or subject-matter, or else they qualify the otherwise serious tone of a drama with elements that encourage a broader range of moods.

Bret Easton Ellis American novelist

Bret Easton Ellis is an American author, screenwriter, and short story writer. His works have been translated into 27 languages. Ellis was first regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. He is a self-proclaimed satirist whose trademark technique, as a writer, is the expression of extreme acts and opinions in an affectless style. He employs a technique of linking novels with common, recurring characters.

<i>Less Than Zero</i> (novel) novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Less Than Zero is the debut novel of Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1985. It was his first published effort, released while he was 21 and still a student at Bennington College.


Less Than Zero received mixed reviews among critics. Ellis hated the film initially but his view of it later softened. He insists that the film bears no resemblance to his novel and felt that it was miscast with the exceptions of Downey and James Spader.

James Spader American actor

James Todd Spader is an American actor. He is best known for portraying eccentric characters in films such as the drama Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), the action science fiction film Stargate (1994), the controversial psychological thriller Crash (1996), and the erotic romance Secretary (2002).


Clay Easton (Andrew McCarthy) is a straitlaced college freshman on the East Coast of the United States, who returns home to Los Angeles, California, 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 has been having sex with his high school best friend, Julian Wells (Robert Downey Jr.). Julian, whose life has gone downhill after his startup record company fell apart, has become a drug addict. He has also been cut off by his family for stealing to support his habit and reduced to homelessness. Julian is also being hassled by his dealer, an old classmate named Rip (James Spader), for a debt of $50,000 that he owes to him.

Andrew McCarthy actor

Andrew Thomas McCarthy is an American actor, travel writer and television director. He is most known as a member of the Brat Pack, with roles in 1980s films such as St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, and Less Than Zero. He is ranked #40 on VH1's 100 Greatest Teen Stars of all-time list. As a director he is known for his work on the Emmy Award-winning series Orange Is the New Black.

East Coast of the United States Coastline in the United States

The East Coast of the United States, also known as the Eastern Seaboard, the Atlantic Coast, and the Atlantic Seaboard, is the coastline along which the Eastern United States meets the North Atlantic Ocean. The coastal states that have shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean are, from north to south, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Los Angeles City in California

Los Angeles, officially the City of Los Angeles and often known by its initials L.A., is the most populous city in California, the second most populous city in the United States, after New York City, and the third most populous city in North America. With an estimated population of four million, Los Angeles is the cultural, financial, and commercial center of Southern California. The city is known for its Mediterranean climate, ethnic diversity, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and its sprawling metropolis. Los Angeles is the largest city on the West Coast of North America.

Clay's relationship with Blair rekindles and Julian's behavior becomes more volatile. His addiction is worsening and since he does not have the money to pay off his debt, Rip forces him to become a prostitute to work off the debt. After suffering through a night of withdrawal and hiding from Rip, Julian decides to quit and begs his father (Nicholas Pryor) to help him. The next day, Julian tells Rip his plans for sobriety, which Rip does not accept. Rip soon lures Julian back into doing drugs and hooking by pimping him out at a Christmas party for affluent gay men in Palm Springs. Clay finds Julian and rescues him; after a violent confrontation with Rip and his henchman, Clay, Julian and Blair all escape and begin the long drive through the desert so Julian can attempt to achieve sobriety once and for all. However, the damage has already been done; the next morning Julian dies from heart failure in the car.

Prostitution practice of engaging in sexual relations in exchange for payment

Prostitution is the business or practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for payment. Prostitution is sometimes described as sexual services, commercial sex or, colloquially, hooking. It is sometimes referred to euphemistically as "the world's oldest profession" in the English-speaking world. A person who works in this field is called a prostitute, and is a type of sex worker.

Drug withdrawal is the group of symptoms that occur upon the abrupt discontinuation or decrease in intake of medications or recreational drugs.

Nicholas Pryor American actor

Nicholas Pryor is an American film and television actor.

After Julian's funeral, Clay and Blair are sitting on a cemetery bench reminiscing about him. Clay then tells Blair, that he is returning to the East Coast and wants her to go with him. She agrees to his offer. We see the snapshot of the three of them at graduation—the last time all three of them were happy together.


Jami Gertz American actress

Jami Beth Gertz is an American actress. Gertz is known for her early roles in the films, Crossroads, The Lost Boys, Less Than Zero and Quicksilver, the 1980s TV series Square Pegs and 1996's Twister, as well as for her roles as Judy Miller in the CBS sitcom Still Standing, and as Debbie Weaver in the ABC sitcom The Neighbors. Along with husband Tony Ressler, she is a part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association.

Robert Downey Jr. American actor

Robert John Downey Jr. is an American actor and singer. His career has included critical and popular success in his youth, followed by a period of substance abuse and legal difficulties, and a resurgence of commercial success in middle age. For three consecutive years from 2012 to 2015, Downey topped the Forbes list of Hollywood's highest-paid actors, making an estimated $80 million in earnings between June 2014 and June 2015.

Tony Bill American actor, producer and director

Gerard Anthony Bill is an American actor, producer, and director. He produced the 1973 movie The Sting, for which he shared the Academy Award for Best Picture with Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips. As an actor, Bill has had supporting roles in films including Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Shampoo (1975), Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), and Less Than Zero (1987). He made his directorial debut with My Bodyguard (1980), and has since directed movies like Six Weeks (1982), Five Corners (1987), Crazy People (1990), Untamed Heart (1993), and Flyboys (2006). He often cast Dudley Moore in his films.


Ellis' book was originally optioned by producer Marvin Worth for $7,500 before its publication in June 1985 with the understanding that 20th Century Fox would finance it. [2]

20th Century Fox American film studio

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation is an American film studio that is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios, a division of The Walt Disney Company. The studio is located on its namesake studio lot in the Century City area of Los Angeles.

The purchase was sponsored by Scott Rudin and Larry Mark, Vice Presidents of Production. The book went on to become a best seller but the producers had to create a coherent story and change Clay, the central character, because they felt that he was too passive. [2] They also eliminated his bisexuality and casual drug use. Worth hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer to write the screenplay. He stuck close to the tone of the novel and had Clay take some drugs but did not make him bisexual. The studio felt that Cristofer's script was too harsh for a commercial film. [2]

Fox then assigned the film to producer Jon Avnet who had made Risky Business . He felt that Cristofer's script was "so depressing and degrading." [2] Avnet instead wanted to transform "a very extreme situation" into "a sentimental story about warmth, caring and tenderness in an atmosphere hostile to those kinds of emotions". [3] Studio executives and Avnet argued over the amount of decadence depicted in the film that would not alienate audiences. Lawrence Gordon, the President of Fox who had approved the purchase of the book, was replaced by Alan F. Horn, who was then replaced by Leonard Goldberg. Goldberg found the material distasteful but Barry Diller, the Chairman of Fox, wanted to make the film. [2]

Harley Peyton was hired to write the script and completed three drafts. [2] In his version, Clay is no longer amoral or passive. The studio still considered the material edgy and kept the budget under $8 million.

Claudia Weill was going to direct at one stage but then was dropped by the studio. [4]

Marek Kanievska was hired to direct because he had dealt with ambivalent sexuality and made unlikeable characters appealing in his previous film, Another Country . The studio wanted to appeal to actor Andrew McCarthy's teenage girl fans without alienating an older audience. [2]

Cinematographer Edward Lachman remembers that originally the film was a lot "edgier" and that the studio took it away from Kanievska. [5] He also recalled a scene he shot with the music group Red Hot Chili Peppers: "The Red Hot Chili Peppers were in that film and the studio became very conservative and they said, 'Oh the band, they're sweaty and they don't have their shirts on.' They destroyed an incredible Steadicam shot, all because they had to cut around them being bare-chested". [5]

At an early test screening, the studio recruited an audience between the ages of 15 and 24; they hated Robert Downey Jr.'s character. [2] As a result, new scenes were shot to make his and Jami Gertz's character more repentant. For example, a high school graduation scene was shot to lighten the mood by showing the three main characters as good friends during better times. [2]


Box office

Less Than Zero opened on November 6, 1987 in 871 theaters and made US$3,008,987 at #4 up against Fatal Attraction 's eighth weekend, Hello Again 's opening, and Baby Boom 's fifth weekend. It went on to gross $12,396,383 in North America. [6]

Critical response

The film received mixed reviews from critics. Film historian Leonard Maltin gave it two-out-of-four stars, his most frequently given rating: "Bret Ellis' nihilistic story is sanitized into pointlessness, although chances are an entirely faithful adaptation would have turned everyone off; try to imagine this picture with Eddie Bracken, Veronica Lake and Sonny Tufts." Indeed, Maltin despised the faithfully-adapted film version of a second Ellis novel, The Rules of Attraction , which he considered a BOMB (Maltin's lowest possible rating).

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 52% based on a weighted average of 25 reviews. [7] In The New York Times , Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Downey gives a performance that is desperately moving, with the kind of emotion that comes as a real surprise in these surroundings." [8] Rita Kempley, in her review for The Washington Post , called the film, "noodle-headed and faint-hearted, a shallow swipe at a serious problem, with a happily-ever-after ending yet." [9] In Newsweek , David Ansen wrote, "Imagine Antonioni making a high-school public-service movie and you'll have an inkling of the movie's high-toned silliness." [10] In the Chicago Sun-Times , Roger Ebert gave Less Than Zero a four-star review, noting that the "movie knows cocaine inside out and paints a portrait of drug addiction that is all the more harrowing because it takes place in the Beverly Hills fast lane...The movie's three central performances are flawless...[Robert Downey, Jr's] acting here is so real, so subtle and so observant that it's scary...The whole movie looks brilliantly superficial, and so Downey's predicament is all the more poignant: He is surrounded by all of this, he is in it and of it, and yet he cannot have it". [11] New York magazine's David Denby wrote, "In many ways, Less than Zero is a cynical, manipulative job. Yet, the movie has something great in it, something that could legitimately move teenagers (or anyone else): Robert Downey Jr. as the disintegrating Julian, a performance in which beautiful exuberance gives way horrifying to a sudden, startled sadness". [12]

Upon its initial release, Ellis hated the film. While promoting the book Lunar Park he said he has gotten very "sentimental" about it [13] and has "really warmed up to it now. I've accepted it". [14] He admits that the film bears no resemblance to his novel but that it captured, "a certain youth culture during that decade that no other movie caught", and felt that it was miscast with the exceptions of Downey and Spader. [13] Furthermore, he has said, "I think that movie is gorgeous, and the performances that I thought were shaky seem much better now. Like, Jami Gertz seems much better to me now than she did 20 years ago. It’s something I can watch". [15] The film was voted as the 22nd best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list". [16]

Awards and honors

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Cancelled sequel

On April 14, 2009, MTV News announced that Ellis had nearly finished Imperial Bedrooms , his seventh book and the sequel to Less Than Zero. Ellis has revealed that the film's main characters are all still alive in the present day, and has already begun looking ahead to the possibility of a film adaptation. Ellis feels that interpreting it as a sequel to the 1987 Less Than Zero adaptation "would be a great idea" and hopes to be able to reunite Spader, McCarthy, and Gertz should Fox option the sequel. [18] [19] [20] [21]


A soundtrack containing a variety of music types was released on November 6, 1987 by Def Jam Recordings. It peaked at 31 on the Billboard 200 and 22 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and was certified gold on February 8, 1988.

Related Research Articles

The Brat Pack is a nickname given to a group of young actors who frequently appeared together in teen-oriented coming-of-age films in the 1980s. First mentioned in a 1985 New York magazine article, it is now usually defined as the cast members of two specific films released in 1985—The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire—although other actors are sometimes included. The "core" members are considered to be Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.

Patrick Bateman fictional character, the antihero and narrator of the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and its film adaptation

Patrick Bateman is a fictional character, protagonist and narrator of the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and its film adaptation. He is a wealthy, materialistic Wall Street investment banker who leads a double life as a serial killer. Bateman has also briefly appeared in other Ellis novels and their film and theater adaptations.

Jay McInerney American writer

John Barrett "Jay" McInerney, Jr. is an American novelist. His novels include Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom, Story of My Life, Brightness Falls, and The Last of the Savages. He edited The Penguin Book of New American Voices, wrote the screenplay for the 1988 film adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City, and co-wrote the screenplay for the television film Gia, which starred Angelina Jolie. He was the wine columnist for House & Garden magazine, and his essays on wine have been collected in Bacchus & Me (2000) and A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006). His most recent novel is titled Bright, Precious Days, published in 2016. From April 2010 he was a wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. In 2009, he published a book of short stories which spanned his entire career, titled How It Ended, which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

<i>Glamorama</i> novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Glamorama is a 1998 novel by American writer Bret Easton Ellis. Glamorama is set in and satirizes the 1990s, specifically celebrity culture and consumerism. Time describes the novel as "a screed against models and celebrity."

<i>The Rules of Attraction</i> (film) 2002 film by Roger Avary

The Rules of Attraction is a 2002 black comedy-drama film written and directed by Roger Avary, based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis. It stars James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel, Kate Bosworth, and Kip Pardue.

<i>Lunar Park</i> novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Lunar Park is a mock memoir by American writer Bret Easton Ellis. It was released by Knopf in 2005. It was the first book written by Ellis to use past tense narrative. The title bears no relation to the public amusement locations known as Luna Park.

The expression "literary Brat Pack" refers to a group of young American authors, including Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney and Jill Eisenstadt, who emerged on the country's east coast in the 1980s. It is a twist on the label brat pack that had previously been applied to a group of young American actors earlier that decade.

Jordan Kerner is an American film producer.

<i>American Psycho</i> (film) 2000 film by Mary Harron

American Psycho is a 2000 satirical psychological horror film co-written and directed by Mary Harron, based on Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel of the same name. It stars Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Chloë Sevigny, Samantha Mathis, Cara Seymour, Justin Theroux, Guinevere Turner and Reese Witherspoon.

Ray-Ban Wayfarer

Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses have been manufactured by Ray-Ban since 1956, which in turn has belonged to the Italian Luxottica Group since 1999. Wayfarers enjoyed early popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, returning to popularity again after a 1982 product placement. A second revival occurred in the mid-2000s.

<i>The Informers</i> (2008 film) 2009 film by Gregor Jordan

The Informers is a 2008 American ensemble Hollywood drama film written by Bret Easton Ellis and Nicholas Jarecki and directed by Gregor Jordan. The film is based on Ellis' 1994 collection of short stories of the same name. The film, which is set amidst the decadence of the early 1980s, depicts an assortment of socially alienated, mainly well-off characters who numb their sense of emptiness with casual sex, alcohol, and drugs. Filming took place in Los Angeles, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires in 2007.

<i>The Delivery Man</i> (novel) novel

The Delivery Man, is Joe McGinniss Jr.'s first novel, published 15 January 2008.

<i>Imperial Bedrooms</i> novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms is a novel by American author Bret Easton Ellis. Released on June 15, 2010, it is the sequel to Less Than Zero, Ellis' 1985 bestselling literary debut, which was shortly followed by a film adaptation in 1987. Imperial Bedrooms revisits Less Than Zero's self-destructive and disillusioned youths as they approach middle-age in the present day. Like Ellis' earlier novel, which took its name from Elvis Costello's 1977 song of the same name, Imperial Bedrooms is named after Costello's 1982 album.

Marek Kanievska is a British film director. His films have won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Florence Film Festival. His 2004 film A Different Loyalty was entered into the 26th Moscow International Film Festival.


  1. Less Than Zero at Box Office Mojo
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Harmetz, Aljean (November 18, 1987). "Sanitizing A Novel for the Screen". The New York Times . Retrieved 2010-05-14.
  3. Crimeen, Bob (December 31, 1987). "Death in the Fast Lane - Hollywood Home Truths". Daily Telegraph .
  4. Cieply, Michael (March 11, 1988). "A Fired Woman Film Director--New Questions, Issue Continues". Los Angeles Times.
  5. 1 2 "Q&A - Cinematographer Ed Lachman on Censoring the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Vitality of Robert Altman". AMC Movie Blog. May 2008.
  6. "Less Than Zero". Box Office Mojo . Amazon.com . Retrieved 2007-12-13.
  7. Less Than Zero at Rotten Tomatoes Flixster Retrieved2010-01-01.
  8. Maslin, Janet (November 6, 1987). "Less Than Zero, Young Lives". The New York Times . Retrieved 2007-11-16.
  9. Kempley, Rita (November 6, 1987). "Zero: Paying Through the Nose". The Washington Post .
  10. Ansen, David (November 16, 1987). "Down and Out in Gucci and Gomorrah". Newsweek .
  11. Ebert, Roger (November 6, 1987). "Less Than Zero". Chicago Sun-Times . Retrieved 2008-03-14.Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg
  12. Denby, David (November 23, 1987). "More Than Zero". New York .
  13. 1 2 Farris, Brandon (September 20, 2005). "Bret Easton Ellis Interview". HillZoo.com. Retrieved 2007-11-16.
  14. "A Tale of Two Brets". Amazon.com . Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  15. Buchanan, Kyle (May 17, 2010). "Bret Easton Ellis on Less Than Zero, Its Adaptation, and Its Sequel Imperial Bedrooms". Movieline . Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  16. Boucher, Geoff (August 31, 2008). "The 25 best L.A. films of the last 25 years". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  17. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-30.
  18. Carroll, Larry (2009-04-14). "Bret Easton Ellis Finishes 'Less Than Zero' Sequel, Wants Robert Downey Jr. Back". MTV News . Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  19. Connelly, Brendon (2009-04-14). "Robert Downey Jr. Back For Less Than Zero 2? Brett Easton Ellis Suggests So". Slashfilm.com. Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  20. Graham, Mark (2009-04-14). "Bret Easton Ellis Wants to Reunite Less Than Zero Cast for a Sequel". New York . Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  21. Lewis, Hilary (2009-04-14). "Does Bret Easton Ellis Want Robert Downey, Jr. To Be An Addict Again?". The Business Insider. Retrieved 2009-04-15.