Monday, July 20, 2009

Better Off Dead (1985)

I honestly think this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and it frustrates me that every one in the world isn't always in a position to act out scenes from it, which is often a state of mind in which I find myself. It is also the movie that kicked off my John Cusack obsession, meaning I spent a good chunk of middle- and early-high school watching anything this guy was in. I even sat through the goddamn Andrew McCarthy/Rob Lowe vehicle Class, to see his first onscreen appearance. The things I do! Anyway, Better Off Dead is writer/director Savage Steve Holland's ode to his own attempted suicides after his heart was broken. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a daydreaming teenager who gets dumped by long-term girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) for the asshole captain of the ski team Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).

Unable to imagine living in a world in which his perfect girl would date a jerk, Lane half-heartedly tries to kill himself several times. In between he has to deal with his irritable father (David Ogden Stiers), clueless mother (Kim Darby), drug-obsessed best friend, Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong), and various other wacky characters. He befriends Monique (Diane Franklin), the adorable French exchange student staying with his socially-inept neighbors. She doesn't speak English but is happy to get away from the groping hands of her host brother Ricky (Dan Schneider), and Lane's happy to have someone who'll listen to him. Maybe soon he will lose his suicidal tendencies and finally master the K12, the most challenging ski trail in the area!

Really, the story isn't especially important here. I mean, it's engaging and everything, but on paper it's not like this amazing, laugh-out-loud premise. And making fun of suicide sounds inappropriate. But seriously you guys: Better Off Dead is so incredibly awesome. It's one of the most ludicrous films I've ever seen, chock full of unexpectedly surreal moments and idiosyncratic supporting characters. I remember when my cousin first recommended this to me, she kept telling me about these really funny scenes and would act out the conversations, and I assumed she was exaggerating because no way would an 80's teen comedy be so out there and so perfectly fitted to our sense of humor. But hey, this one totally is! The dialogue is silly and memorable, with most of the best lines going to Curtis Armstrong. It's a very dense movie- loaded with weird little sight gags or throw-away lines so that each time I watch it I've caught something new. I really enjoy the fantasy/daydreaming sequences too.

John Cusack, obviously, is very likable and cute, playing it a little over the top (he's got some great facial expressions going on). It's nice to remember his wacky side. The whole cast is excellent, right down to little Scooter Stevens playing Lane's silent brother who builds a spaceship out of common household items (good times). I'm not sure why this movie didn't do better when it came out- maybe it's a bit too strange- but it has since developed a devoted following for a reason: it's kind of genius. I could not compare it to any other movie; its humor is unique and immensely enjoyable. Though it has the trappings of 1980's high school comedies in its fashion, character archetypes, and claymation musical sequence, it is not hindered by its decade. Meaning I'm free to watch it an unhealthy amount of times for the rest of my life.


"One Way Love (Better Off Dead)"- Elizabeth Daily (excellent song sung by Ms Daily during her performance at the school dance. If she sounds familiar, you might know her as Tommy Pickles' voice in Rugrats or Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls. Or of course, Dottie in Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Susan in Jon Cryer's first movie No Small Affair)

And if you're interested, here's a cool interview with Savage Steve Holland in which you can hear details about John Cusack's irrational hatred for this movie.


  1. YEA! One of the best. Can't believe Cusack's hatred for it.

  2. "That's a shame...throwing out a perfectly good white boy like that..."

  3. It's been way too long since I've seen this. I love it to death, and really need to just buy the damn DVD already, since it's not showing up on cable much these days.

    And in case anyone asks, One Crazy Summer is good, but doesn't touch the brilliance of Dead.

  4. Wooo glad to see such love for this movie!

    And Fletch: I agree. I was hoping for something on par with Better Off Dead but it's just not as enjoyable (still worth watching, of course). It's been a long time since I've seen it though, so it might warrant a re-watch when I'm back in the states.

  5. Better Off Dead has hilarious blends of comedy and a noteworthy perforance from a young Cusack, but destorys itself with the last 30 minutes, and descending into a romantic comedy feel.

  6. "Oh my god, is that a hamburger with a guitar" were my first thoughts upon reading about this film. That alone will make me watch it :D

  7. Great review. The film is totally underrated. It is easily one of the best teen movies of the 1980s.

  8. Wow after reading that I'm thrilled, I really must see this movie. Let's hope it's on Love Film

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