Better Off Dead… (1985) – dir. Savage Steve Holland

I could write a lot about my mother. How she drives me up a wall. How she is maybe my biggest fan, or maybe totally withholding. I could talk about what a crazy person she is, or how adventurous she is. In any discussion, I’d be remiss not to mention how much I admire her toughness, her drive, and her humor. Yet, pretty much anyone can talk about their parents in terms of their humanity. Their strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the case may be, I love my mom. She’s all right. And so, I’m gonna talk about her favorite movie, which happens to be one I adore as well.

As much as my mother and I love Better Off Dead…, Savage Steve Holland’s criminally underrated absurdist high school comedy, the film was pretty famously dismissed by star John Cusack. Better Off Dead… is, or was, the film that saw Cusack “give up on movies,” which is a shame, because few films are as audacious and memorable as this one. One sees the Better Off Dead… in the DNA of everything from Wet Hot American Summer, to the films of Edgar Wright, to Inherent Vice. Still, little else is like Better Off Dead…,a manic, gut-busing, mind-bending romcom for the ages.

The plot of Better Off Dead… is relatively straightforward. Skier Lane Myer (Cusack) gets dumped by girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) for slightly better athlete Roy Stalin (the decidedly Aryan Aaron Dozier), hilariously tries to kill himself multiple times, falls for rough-and-tumble French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin), and gets his pride back by out-skiing his rival. All the while, he has yet to pay his paperboy $2—plus tips. Think something like The Hustler or Silver Linings Playbook, but better. The narrative in question is mostly a vehicle for a slew of memorable gags and character moments. These range from Lane’s dad Al (David Ogden Stiers as a perfect straight foil) attempting to keep the windows on his garage door from being destroyed, to Lane being accosted by a pair of Korean drag racers who rope Lane into impromptu contests through Howard Cosell-tinged egging.

That bizarre, heightened sense of imagination really drives Better Off Dead… Holland keenly captures the sensation of being in high school, of going through a break-up, of panic and insecurity. When in a math class, every other student seems infinitely more invested in the work, bringing in large books, still-processing computers, and an entire file organizers dedicated to a single assignment. Lane, on the other hand, has only a piece of paper with a chewed piece of gum holding the parchment together. In another instance, he gets bored at work, imagining he’s a Victor Frankenstein fry cook, bringing a hunk of hamburger to life for the greatest use of “Everybody Wants Some” that will ever exist—a gag that gets a surprisingly tender callback. The most famous, of course, is of Lane being chased down by an army of newspaper-chucking cyclists in a tense, faux-horror sequence that may be the film’s most memorable moment. Somehow, Better Off Dead… is spoiled with dozens of gags like this.

Despite a rather sardonic mood, Better Off Dead… finds a lot of heart in the romantic subplot between Lane and Monique. While Lane may pine for Beth—the preppy blonde who’s willing to trade up for the Ken doll Roy—how could he not adore Monique? They ride to school together, fix up Lane’s old Camaro, and go skiing. Cusack and Franklin’s chemistry is hardly going to blow anyone’s mind, their courtship is earned and sweet, not to mention almost entirely grounded. If anything rings false about their relationship, one wonders what exactly Monique sees in Lane Myer. Sure, he’s John Cusack, but this is pre-Lloyd Dobler. Lane is funny and charming in his way, but Monique is a tough, smart woman who could do so much better than some guy who’s likable enough, but kind of a drag.

Still, the love story between Lane and Monique works, and gives a much-needed tonal versatility to a film that is mostly jokes. What is nice is how taut the film is—finding room for subplots about Lane skiing, Monique’s host brother looking for love, his best friend Charles de Marr looking for drugs, and even Lane’s mute younger brother building rockets and picking up women—but Better Off Dead… is never one-note. Riffing on sports, horror, romance, animation, and melodrama, Better Off Dead… is a film that, with any less confidence, might seem to be caught in an identity conference, but that isn’t the case. Instead, Holland is able to nimbly and effectively dabble in whatever space best serves a joke or set piece.

In an era where great films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or drivel by John Hughes managed to break through, the fact that Better Off Dead… has remained a minor cult film is somewhat curious. Smartly and hysterically impresses the adolescent experience. Better Off Dead… is so honest and well-observed, despite being goofy and untethered. Movies like Better Off Dead… are so miraculous, because so few movies have this much of an identity, unafraid to be itself. A few years back, Cusack amended his earlier comments, saying that he wishes that Better Off Dead… had been better, but aside from fleshing out a love interest who’s already fairly realized, what could one do to improve such a dynamite picture?

Rating – 9.3/10

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