The experience of watching Less than Zero is very similar to that of watching HBO’s Girls. You spend most of the time detesting the characters, even questioning why you’re watching this in the first place. But we still find ourselves engrossed by both Girls and Less Than Zero, like we’re on the outside standing in of some exclusive NYC or LA party and spewing insults about all the phonies who are inside. We say how much we hate them, but we can’t help ourselves from stopping to stare.
The Girls gang is just more selfish and naïve than anything else, and we don’t hate their characters because they have extravagant amounts of money, but because they’re played by rich people who didn’t have to go through similar struggles. Less Than Zero, though, focuses dead center on the rich kid elite of Los Angeles, a hellhole of over-entitled brats who claim to know the real world because they’ve been out of high school for a few months. Everything from Clay and Blair, two of the primary characters of the film, is pretty much forgettable.
But the movie gets its true hear though through the characters of Julian, a drug-addicted charismatic teen played by Robert Downey Jr., and Rip, a seemingly friendly dealer who operates in the underbelly of Beverly Hills with not so favorable characters. It’s fascinating to watch Julian and Rip try to create the image of a friendship, that Julian isn’t just being abused and harangued by Rip to be a sex slave he can whore out at parties. It’s also probably why Rip kept giving Julian drugs in the first place, to constantly have him on his payroll.
Just as much an indictment of drug cultures and rich kids being assholes in LA, Less Than Zero is also a fascinating look at friendships and what is necessarily implied, given or owed to because of them, or what even constitutes a friend. A husband has a wife, a parent has a child, a boss has an employee, each of these particular relationships has some boundaries or rules, either societally-implied or deliberately discussed between each member of that relationship.
Friendships, though, where we just hang out with someone for the sake of their company and nothing more, don’t really have those explicit rules until someone states so in a negative light: “Giving me drugs when you should have cut me off is not something a friend would do!” we can imagine Julian saying, just as much as he could say “Hey! Cutting me off when I need drugs is not something a friend would do.” When Clay gets involved in Julian’s troubles, he constantly is asking himself “what should I do as a good friend to Julian?”
But the idea of having friends quickly can evolve into the desire to be popular and do things to appease those to be your friends, or in other words, do stuff to make you look cool. With this in mind, we can see how Julian ended up down this path, and how Clay and Blair can’t really help him. It’s also a fascinating look at Rip, since Rip really is the only person who realizes and explicitly says that everyone in this community is an asshole. When Clay tries to plead with Rip, he gets a response along the lines of “I don’t give a shit if you’re his friend, you owe me money, friendships have no play into this.” He’s the only one who sees beyond the bullshit of it all, and that’s why he’s on top in Less than Zero. And after Julian has his final downfall at the end, we can’t help but ask: what are friends for?