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