Published on September 6th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Movie Punch-Out: Less Than Zero  vs. Bright Lights, Big City 
So many films are produced each year, it’s a given that some are going to be similar. Hell, who am I kidding, most of the movies cranked out of Hollywood feature the same recycled storylines played out among different actors with more updated special effects. This led me to create a new feature on OverdueReview.com — the Movie Punch-Out!! When I come across pictures that are too similar to bear separate reviews, we will pit them against one another in a winner-take-all death match! Disagree with my outcome? Send me an email. Likewise if you come across any pair of films that deserves a Punch-Out.
We’ll take a look at several components of the films, picking a winner for each category. Based on the final tally, a champion will be crowned and the loser is labelled a mere clone. Enough exposition, let’s get to our first ever Overdue Review Movie Punch-Out!!
Less Than Zero vs. Bright Lights, Big City
Cocaine was not invented in the 1980s, but it certainly went mainstream during the decade of decadence. In the ’70s, coke-addled club-goers were throwing on platform shoes, bell-bottoms, and picking out their afros to party all night at any disco they could find. By the late ’80s, most of the general public had realized how serious cocaine addiction was and popular culture was saturated with works that felt like after school specials, advising us to Just Say ‘No’!
These two movies, 1987’s Less Than Zero and 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City both follow the paths of a cautionary tale. One features despondent rich kids hitting up coke-fueled parties in Los Angeles while the other features a career-minded midwestern kid getting sucked into the fast lifestyle of New York City. Honestly, neither film is very good but to avoid you sitting through each as I did, let’s put them in the ring…
Before we get to the substance of each picture, let’s take a look at the minds behind them. Less Than Zero, a product of 20th Century Fox studios, was only the second movie directed by Britain’s Marek Kanievska. Among the film’s producers are Marvin Worth, whose greatest claim to fame is helping Spike Lee bring Malcolm X to the screen less than a decade later. The screenplay was written by Harley Peyton, who would go on to be nominated for an Emmy for his work on the cult classic TV series Twin Peaks and also wrote for ESPN’s underrated 2007 miniseries The Bronx is Burning. Without question the biggest names in Less Than Zero‘s credits come in the music department, as perennial Oscar snub Thomas Newman composed the score and legendary producer Rick Rubin served as the music consultant (whatever that means).
While Less Than Zero may have been made by up-and-coming talents, Bright Lights, Big City packs some serious punch in the credits. Oscar winner Sydney Pollack produced the film, which was director James Bridges’s (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy) final film before his death. Also on board was screenwriter Jay McInerney, whose novel the movie was based on. Finally, the film’s music was produced by studio savant Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, giving the score a sleek sheen.
ROUND 1 GOES TO: Bright Lights, Big City
Less Than Zero is about three friends, two guys and a girl, who grew up driving sports cars in ritzy neighborhoods. The movie’s central character Clay is played by card-carrying Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy and his drug abusing model girlfriend Blair is played by Jami Gertz. However, the star of this movie is a young Robert Downey Jr., whose staggering performance as the loose cannon Julian provides the film’s only weight. McCarthy is a bit soft for a movie with this heavy a message and I thought Gertz was just plain awful in her role. James Spader also gives a solid turn as the evil drug dealer Rip…I swear, this movie has more in common with Reefer Madness than any other film of the ’80s. As a bonus point, Brad Pitt goes uncredited as a partygoer in one of the movie’s scenes (thank you Wikipedia!).
Bright Lights, Big City also totes a serious cast of players. Leading the film is Michael J. Fox, perhaps the biggest star of the decade thanks to his roles in Family Ties and Back to the Future. Fox plays Jamie, a Pennsylvania boy whose dream of becoming a journalist has him working a lowly fact-checking job at a magazine in New York City — the story’s drama comes from Jamie’s rapidly increasing drug/alcohol problem. He’s flanked by two other big time actors, Kiefer Sutherland’s Tad is Jamie’s hard-partying friend who ends up a bad influence and the lovely Phoebe Cates is Amanda, Jamie’s soon-to-be-ex wife who works as a model (where have I heard that one before?). I’m a big fan of Fox’s career but he was the least convincing drug addict I’ve maybe ever seen on screen. Rather than showing this as a serious problem, Fox is the most lighthearted cokehead since Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums. Two veteran actors that add some serious weight to this fluffy picture though are Jason Robards and two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest.
ROUND 2 GOES TO: Bright Lights, Big City
When you make a film about the dangers of drug abuse, there’s a certain level of debauchery that’s expected. However, only one of these movies really contains anything even remotely hardcore. In Less Than Zero, Downey’s Julian turns from a promising high school graduate with sky-high dreams to a devastated coke addict and alcoholic in mere months. In the film, Julian smokes crack numerous times including freebasing at a night club, he also drinks heavily in a few scenes. We also see Blair snorting cocaine a few times, denying she has a serious problem when confronted about it. Obviously, Downey’s struggle with drug abuse in real life would be well-documented, giving Less Than Zero an uncomfortable level of realism at times.
As far as debauchery goes, Bright Lights, Big City features almost zero. This film is like an after school special version of what drug abuse can do. The habits Jamie picks up nearly cost him big but at the end of the day, it’s not that difficult for him to just quit. We see a slight bit of coke use and some wine-fueled drunkenness on his part but this is far from a gritty film about addiction.
ROUND 3 GOES TO: Less Than Zero
What’s an ’80s movie without a badass soundtrack? Miami Vice pretty much became a hit because of the tunes it featured every week on television. Both of these pictures had compilation records that were released with them and both are full of cokey synthesizer dance tunes. As I mentioned, Less Than Zero‘s accompanying music was supervised by Rick Rubin himself — which is obvious when you hear the load of acts produced by the man himself featured in the film. Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”, LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali”, and Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” make the movie’s soundtrack edgier than most of the decade but the Bangles’ lame “Hazy Shade of Winter” cover drags it down a notch.
Bright Lights, Big City‘s original soundtrack features a few big name acts but has a lot of forgettable tracks thrown in as filler. At best you’ve got Prince with “Good Love” and Depeche Mode’s “Pleasure, Little Treasure”, but at worst you’re stuck with Narada’s “Divine Emotions” and Jennifer Hall’s “Ice Cream Days”. A whole disc of Fagen tunes would have been better than that garbage.
ROUND 4 GOES TO: Less Than Zero
To decide this brawl, we turn to the seminal novels that inspired each of these flicks. While Less Than Zero shares the title of Bret Easton Ellis’s debut book, it bears little resemblance beyond that. In Ellis’s version of the story, Clay is an emotionally-detached yuppie who could care less about the wellbeing of his two friends and Julian is so indebted to his dealer that he acts as a gay prostitute to continue receiving his fix. However, in the film Clay is like everyone’s mother. He professes his love to Blair and is there to get Julian out of any trouble he finds himself in. McCarthy’s squeaky-clean Clay also doesn’t touch drugs once but in the book he’s as much a cokehead as the other two main characters. Finally, the homosexual element is completely removed from Less Than Zero‘s adaptation, save one quick scene that is severely altered from the book.
Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City is unique for a number of reasons, two being that it’s written in second-person and its protagonist goes unnamed for the entire story. Meanwhile, the film adaptation has nothing unique to offer audiences stylistically. I haven’t read McInerney’s book but since he was also responsible for writing the film’s screenplay, I’m willing to bet it stays pretty close to the source material. That simple fact will decide this showdown.
ROUND 5 GOES TO: Bright Lights, Big City
For the record – I give both Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City a 2-star “Clunker” rating.