Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Lost Weekend is now a screwball comedy

The movie that made me think of combining a classic like The Lost Weekend with the best of screwball comedy is airing overnight tonight, at 12:30 AM ET on Encore Love Stories: Less Than Zero. I laughed my way through the movie, but it's unfortunately that the producers were actually trying to make a serious "message" movie.

Less Than Zero tells the story of a group of vapid, idle rich teens in Beverly Hills (zip code not mentioned here) who, after graduating from high school spend their days in lovely beach houses and their nights partying and snorting coke in the presence of copious quantities of neon. One of the clique, however, a young man named Clay (played by Andrew McCarthy), has sworn off all of this in order to go to college out east. He returns home for Christmas to find that his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is a casual snorter, while the third member of their little group, Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr., has a full-blown addiction. (One wonders how much acting Downey had to do, or whether this is just one of the dangers of "method" acting.)

Julian doesn't just have the physical addiction; cocain has screwed up his personal life, getting him thrown out of his house by his father, and caused him to run up a giant tab to his pusher (James Spader). Clay, in between sessions of making love to Blair, and driving around his high-priced sports car, decides that he cares too much about his friend to engage in "tough love", instead taking a more active part in helping him quit cold turkey -- ladies, have fun watching a naked Robert Downey going through withdrawal. Unfortunately for Julian, he's still got that pesky little debt, and his pusher wants that money, to the point of using Julian as a male prostitute. There's one particularly humorous scene where Clay walks in on poor Julian and has no clue of the humiliation poor Julian is going through.

It should go without saying that Less Than Zero does not measure up to the standard that Billy Wilder had set with the courageous The Lost Weekend 40 years earlier. While The Lost Weekend has a very ambiguous ending, Less Than Zero wraps everything up with a tidy little bow that allows it to make its anti-drug message. The styles make me wonder if the 80s were really as bad as is portrayed. I know that there's a lot of revision surrounding the 80s because it was the Reagan era and the cultural establishment (both high- and pop-culture) couldn't stand Reagan, but I don't remember the 80s being that bad. But the biggest flaw in the movie is that it's just so difficult to take seriously. I couldn't help but laugh at the Bette Davis style hamming from Jami Gertz, all the casual sex, and especially the homosexual prostitution. In that regard, Less Than Zero can be compared to Reefer Madness as movies that tried to be anti-drug but are so far of the mark that looking back on them, they're just funny. At least with Reefer Madness, though, you can give the filmmakers a pass for having a budget that would even have made Edgar G. Ulmer blanch. Less Than Zero was backed by a real studio, and was based on what is generally considered to be a much harder-hitting book. (I should point out that I haven't read the book.) However, if you want a good laugh, you could do worse than Less Than Zero.

One final point of trivia: two of the three leads -- Gertz and Downey -- were actually relatively young for Hollywood's portrayal of teens. They were only 22 at the time the movie was released; McCarthy was older, but still a relatively young 25.

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