This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
George Carlin was once asked how cocaine made you feel, and he answered: "It makes you feel like having some more cocaine." That inescapable fact is at the bottom of "Less than Zero," a movie that 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, in a world of wealth, sex, glamor and helpless self-destruction.
The movie is about three very rich kids who graduate from the same high school. How rich? As a graduation present, the father of one of the kids sets him up in the recording industry. The character's name is Julian, and he is played by Robert Downey Jr., as a slick, smart, charming young man who takes less than a year to lose everything. His best friend in high school was Clay, played by Andrew McCarthy. Clay, who wears a tie even in Southern California, goes off to an Ivy League university, leaving behind his girlfriend, Blair (Jami Gertz). By Thanksgiving, Downey and Gertz are sleeping together and doing cocaine together, and by Christmas a terrified Gertz is calling McCarthy and begging him to come home and rescue Downey, who is in very big trouble.
The problem is, you cannot rescue someone who is addicted to drugs. You can lecture them, to no point, and plead with them, to no avail, but essentially an outsider is powerless over someone else's addiction. Downey is clearly out of control and headed for bottom. He has lost the recording studio, spent all his money, made a halfhearted stab at a rehab center, gone back to using and been banished from his home by his father, who practices tough love and tells him, "You can lead your life anyway you want, but stay the hell out of mine."
The first hint of this movie's power comes during a Christmas party scene. McCarthy, back from the East, tries to talk to his old friend and his former girlfriend, but they're stoned and talk too fast and too loud, almost mechanically, and have tiny attention spans. Later, Gertz begs McCarthy to help Downey, but what can he do? And then the movie's long middle section functions almost as a documentary of the Beverly Hills fast track, of private clubs that open at midnight, of expensive cars and smooth drug dealers and glamorous hangers-on, and the quiet desperation of a society of once-bright, once-attractive, once-promising young people who talk about a lot of things but essentially think only about cocaine.