50 I CHRONICLESnPOP CULTUREnThe Null Setnby Gary S. VasilashnLess Than Zero; directed bynMarek Kanievska; screenplay bynHarley Peyton, based on the novelnby Bret Easton Ellis; 20th CenturynR)x.nTom Waits recently suggested to Musiciannmagazine that if John Lennonnknew that Michael Jackson would controlnThe Beatles’ music, Lennonnwould “kick his ass — and kick it reallyngood.” As I watched the film version ofnBret Easton Ellis’ novel Less ThannZero, whose title is taken from ElvisnCostello, it occurred to me that Mr.nCostello might want to follow Waits’nsuggestion.nIn a way, Elvis escaped unscathed.nIn the novel version, a poster of Costellonadorns a bedroom wall of thenprotagonist, Clay, and the glasses wornnby the musician prominently figure onnthe dust jacket of the novel. The film,nnaturally, has an abundance of rock innthe sound track: the Bangles, thenDoors, Jimi Hendrix, David Lee Rothn. . . even Roy Orbison. But no ElvisnCostello. No poster. No glasses. Perhapsnthe producers felt safer by leavingnhim out.nThose who plunked down $4.50 ornmore to watch the film probablynwouldn’t mind lining up to execute anfew kicks on the responsible parties.nHowever, they may be too numb fromnthe soporific examination of lifenamong the teenage parasites in L.A.nThe few book reviewers who didn’tnsing Ellis’ praises through highly amplified,nextra bass response, nonreflectivenspeakers pointed out, however timidly,nnot only that the characters havenfreeze-dried cerebral cortices but alsonthat the writing style has a certainndistanced quality. Turned right side up,nVITAL SIGNSnthat’s a nice way of saying shallow. ButnEllis’ failing is overshadowed by thenvirtues of his subject: deceit, deception,ndirty dealing, drugs, death,ndisease — and that’s only a partial listnof a single consonant. ScreenwriternHarley Peyton tones down the level ofnabuse: it’s there, but less intense.nWhereas Clay in the novel is morenor less another brick in the wall of anSadean ruin, the porcine-faced AndrewnMcCarthy gives a bit more life tonthe part. Clay goes East to college, andnwhen his buddy Julian’s recordingncompany, which his daddy bankrollednas a graduation gift, sucks wind, Juliannbegins to suck coke. When he’s notnwired, he’s sick. Clay’s girlfriend, Blair,nfeels so sorry for Julian that she simplynmust minister to his “needs” when shenisn’t being a fashion model. JaminCertz, who plays Blair, used to be thenstraitlaced student council presidentntype on Square Pegs. Now she looksnlike she could sliver diamonds with hernfingernails. Robert Downey Jr. playsnJulian like an Alex Keaton gone bad.nThroughout the film, Downey hasnwhat appears at various times to benMaalox, spittle, and a herpes sore onnthe edge of his mouth. It was either ansloppy makeup person or a statement.nI’m afraid it may be the latter, but whatnit means I can’t figure.nFilm is more effective than TV is,nbecause in a theater your attentionntends to be entirely focused on thenimage projected onto a screen that isnmeasured in square feet. Sound, especiallynin auditoriums equipped withnDolby, is all-encompassing. With TV,na minor shift in eye orientation takesnyou away from the scene, and thenaudio emerges from a single speakernthat could have been stolen from anPhilco radio. The movie can absorbnnnthe viewer; the viewer is distancednfrom the glass screen.nThe video screen figures prominentlynin Less Than Zero. The intent,nno doubt, was to parallel MTV; theneffect is far different. There are twonmain scenes in the movie: Clay’s returnnfrom the East and the denouement,nwhen Clay saves his friends fromnthemselves: Blair pours a vial of cocainendown a sink; Julian is taken outnof a room where he is performing as anhomosexual prostitute. In both casesnthe setting is a party; multiple videonscreens throb with the digitized imagesnof, among the stainless steel wastes of anpostmoral society, the three friends.nThe effect is cold, distant, sterile.nCharacters are simply fashions. You arenas sorry for these forms as you are for anpair of Guess jeans.nThe movie doesn’t fail in spite ofnitself but because of itself. AlthoughnClay, who goes only so far as annoccasional cigarette and drink, seems tonbe well-meaning, the seeming isn’tnvery much. It’s more a matter of mechanicalnmotions, not deliberate acts.nThe biggest risk he takes is asking hisnfather for $5 OK, which is meant to paynoff Julian’s bill to the heavies. For mostnof us, the sum is extraordinary, but innLess Than Zero it’s like bumming ansmoke on a visit to the R.J. Reynoldsnheadquarters. For Clay, it is hardlynheroic.nBlair’s moment of salvation is motivatednnot by any question about thenerror of drug abuse but by a fear thatncontinued abuse of her nasal passagesnwill lead to a bloody nose, which is hellnon a model’s makeup. The death ofnJulian, seated between his best friendsnon the butter-soft leather seats of anvintage Corvette, is figured beatifically;nbut it is less moving than the coyotenthat was run over earlier in the film.nIt’s a rare case of a film that is asngood as the book.nGary Vasilash watches movies innDetroit.n