It is not quite the compliment it may sound to say that Robert Downey Jr. steals every scene in Less Than Zero (even the ones he's not in). His co-stars in this botched film version of the infamous Bret Easton Ellis novel are Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, both of whom so completely embody their characters' blankness that they leave two voids at the center of the story. Downey could mistakenly be judged to have walked off with the acting honors by default, the easiest victory since Theresa Russell (in a very similar role) wrested The Razor's Edge away from Bill Murray and Catherine Hicks. This, however, would be to severely underrate Downey's careful recreation of a life out of control. An accident waiting to happen, Downey's Julian roars with the painful last gasp of a party boy for whom time is running out. Lying upside down in McCarthy's red convertible, singing screwed-up Christmas carols as they cruise L.A. after dark, Downey portrays the side of drug use that the "Just Say No" folks most dread: It's fun to be high (that is, until it's not). Despite the screenplay's watered-down insistence that Downey and McCarthy are competing for the favors of Gertz's character, Downey instead slyly plays his part like it's torn from the scorched pages of the novel, where the two boys are lovers, not just friends. It's a bold choice that brings his character to vivid life: In addition to all the other emotional ravages he evokes, he shows us with his panicky, sad eyes that he knows he's losing McCarthy to Gertz. Not that all of this aspect of his character is in the subtext; to pay his debts off to his dealer Rip (James Spader), Julian acts as a prostitute for Rip's other male clients.
In his absurdly cheerful holiday shirt, the incorrigible Julian offers us the flip side of those too-neat TV movie plots about parents practicing "tough love" on their addict children; seen here from the helplessly self-destructive kid's point of view, the familiar tale is unbearably painful to watch. But Downey's energetic charisma keeps us from looking away, even when he takes us into the horror show of what it looks like when Julian overdoses. Downey makes us care how Julian, cut off by his family and hunted by his creditors, lives before he dies.
In the film's most resonant image, the sweating, shell-shocked Julian is feeling so like a cornered animal that even the reflections off a swimming pool take on the appearance of bars that entrap him. He won't, can't, go inside to a Christmas party: "I feel like Tiny fuckin' Tim," he says, so despondent that it's clear he knows no help will come, although he never stops lying outwardly. "It's not going to happen again, this; it's over," he'll tell anyone who'll listen, and Downey gives just the right hollow cadence to this automatic lie that fools no one. "I'm gonna probably go back into rehab." Downey conveys the physical hysteria of the hopeless addict with equal finesse. Long after the movie is over, one is haunted by the scene of Downey alone (his pals are doing Christmas dinner with their dysfunctional families), doing a lonely little soft-shoe routine. Simple, understated, unforgettable. It is a sublime moment.
It has been said that Downey's take on Julian was probably a case of life imitaing art. Perhaps. . . But that only makes the performance much more astonishing. Plenty of Hollywood's elite have tried their hands at the same type of role and come up wanting, even though they too were "living the role in real life." (Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls anyone?)