Better Off Dead (1985)
Written & Directed by Savage Steve Holland
I turned four years old in the summer of 1985, so my memory of the year is foggy at best. What I know about this mid-point in the decade came from retrospectively consuming media when I was older. Back to the Future is probably the most prominent touchpoint for movies. I watched that picture over and over and over. I had a Matchbox car that resembled the Delorean enough that it became a stand-in for the iconic vehicle during my imaginative play. This was also the year that saw the release of The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Clue, Rocky IV, Weird Science, and so many more films. Only one of those movies will come up in my individual reviews the next few weeks, though others will likely find a spot on my favorites list when we wrap up. To begin things, we’re going to look at a film you may have caught on its numerous showings on Comedy Central in the early 2000s, the teen comedy Better Off Dead.
Lane Myer (John Cusack) is genuinely in love with Beth, his high school sweetheart. She’s gotten over Lane and is now into the captain of the ski team, Stalin. Lane reacts to this news by embarking on a series of suicide attempts, all of which fail, thankfully. Meanwhile, Monique (Diane Franklin), a French exchange student, has moved in across the street to live with the gross Smiths. She notices Lane down in the dumps, and eventually, the two form a friendship that sparks into something more. Lane goes through a series of episodes where he damages the family car, gets fired on his first day on the job, and tries to conquer the K12 so he can impress Beth and get back the girl.
Better Off Dead is not a good movie, but it is an enjoyable movie that I suspect everyone would find something to laugh at. Part of the problem with the picture is that there is not a clear throughline for the plot. The story is about Lane Myer being heartbroken over losing his girl but then learning more about himself and meeting a person who truly appreciates him. That story is shattered into dozens of pieces by strange asides that muddy the intended tone. There are few moments that hint at Lane being an artist, he draws a picture of Beth and Stalin with his rival being eaten by a monster, this is animated. Later, he molds raw hamburger meat and plays like Dr. Frankenstein to bring it to life while Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some” plays. These flights of fancy only happen twice, so I’m left wondering what their purpose was. If Lane had been presented as a daydreaming artist from the get-go, it would have been different.
There are very funny but ultimately inconsequential side plots involving Lane’s family. His father (David Ogden Stiers) is in an ongoing battle with the neighborhood paperboy who shatters the windows on his garage door. The patriarch also believes Lane is doing drugs and tries to bond with him and redirect his ambitions in comical ways. Lane’s brother, Badger, is obsessed with mail-in rebates and cereal box prizes, which escalate in absurdity throughout the movie. Lane’s mom (Kim Darby) is an utterly bizarro homemaker whose meal concoctions are nauseating. Add in, Curtis Armstrong mainly playing his Booger character from Revenge of the Nerds, a duo of Japanese-American drag racers, and the previously mentioned paperboy stalking Lane for his payment of two dollars and this movie is overflowing with stuff.
The film was the brainchild of Savage Steve Holland, a director and an animator who I know best from his work as the showrunner for Eek! the Cat. Holland has had his hand in a large number of animated and live-action shows, most recently with Nickelodeon. Reportedly, John Cusack disliked the final result of Better Off Dead, walked out during the premiere, and had some brutally choice words for Holland. It must have not been too bad, because Cusack rejoined Holland for 1986’s One Crazy Summer. I can’t say Holland has made a masterpiece here, but it is a stark contrast to the John Hughes-ian take on high school. There is a dark edge to the comedy here that makes it more interesting, and Holland has some genuinely hilarious bits sprinkled throughout the picture.