It’s hard to describe Better Off Dead to someone who didn’t grow up in the 80s and make it sound watchable. It sounds weird and depressing, which in many ways it is and it certainly was when it was released in 1985. But the endearing humor that is infused throughout and the performance of John Cusack, who I happily think tucked himself into the memories of the youth at the time as the archetypical “good guy” in movies. This is a role he played until his unfortunate decline after what I believe to be his last great film, High Fidelity. But we can save that discussion for another time. As for now, let’s concentrate our efforts on the task at hand…
Better Off Dead tells the tale of one Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a high school student who couldn’t be more in love with his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). One need look no further than this picture:
To Lane, Beth is everything, so when she dumps him for the new kid in school who takes Lane’s spot on the ski team, the prickish and evil Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), Lane literally doesn’t know what else to do except kill himself. He feels that, yes, he would be better off dead than to live without her (cue Elizabeth Daily). So Lane comes up with several different methods of killing himself throughout the movie as his life spirals into deeper and deeper into depression.
Sounds like a fun movie, right? Well, it actually is. Each time Lane is about to take his own life, he thinks better of it and doesn’t commit that act. However, each time something inadvertently occurs that causes him to nearly die through no fault of his own. See what happens when Lane prepares to douse himself with some primer and light himself on fire:
Along the way, Lane is constantly encouraged to keep on going (“buck up, little camper!”) by his only friend and the town’s residential drug lover, Charles De Mar (played so perfectly by Curtis Armstrong). Quick to offer words of solace while vacuuming anything he can up his nose, Charles’ wisdom might be the only thing that keeps Lane going. He is without a doubt the finest part of the movie. Here’s a little sample of why:
Lane is a complete chicken shit in his “efforts” to win Beth back and they really never get off the ground. That is until he meets Monique (Diane Franklin), the French exchange student who lives with his gross neighbor Ricky Smith (Dan Schneider) and his mother (Laura Waterbury).
Well hog my hooter! You do speak English!
She works with Lane on ways to get Beth back in his good graces – fixing up his Camaro, teaching him how to ski better so he can beat Stalin in a race down the feared K-12 mountain and in general how to be confident. However, as might be foreseen, Lane finally finds the one thing that will help him get over Beth…and this is Monique. After that the only thing he’s interested in is language lessons.
The scenery around this Lane’s narrative is what really gives this film life and color. From Taylor Negron‘s slacker ass mailman:
to the Dr. Frankenstein/Hamburger/Everybody Wants Some scene:
to the absurdity of the paperboy Johnny Gasparini’s (Demian Slade) quest to collect his $2:
to the two Asian brothers who race Lane Meyer, one who speaks no English and the other who speaks only Howard Cosell (a reference likely lost on many of today’s youth):
this is one of the strangest movies about teenagers maybe ever made. And that it ever got made is all the more perplexing. If this were pitched today, no way anyone takes a chance on it. This movie is pure 80s gold with a killer soundtrack that features Howard Jones, Rupert Hine, and the aforementioned Elizabeth Daily (Dottie from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) prominently. And I will say that the usage of Rupert Hine‘s “Arrested By You” is one of the most underrated in 80s cinema, perfectly contextualized, matching the tone of the scene that it plays over. When Meyer breaks out his sax, we clearly see this is the precursor to Lloyd Dobler and his boombox from Say Anything and really the beginning of building the persona he was known for before Cusack started appearing in ridiculous action and horror flicks.
Now, go kick eez ass…
Better Off Dead still remains one of the most fun movies from when I was a kid. I still relish seeing Roy Stalin get his just desserts. I love watching Lane’s weird ass family as well as seeing him bloom from the meek loner to the guy who gets the girl in the end. It’s just a fantastically bizarre trip with a quality payoff.
So if you haven’t seen, get there. Some of the jokes and gags don’t necessarily translate well to today, but the film has an incredible sense of humor and a real heart, which is rare these days.
UPDATE: Better Off Dead recently celebrated its 30th Anniversary. The characters in this film have my co-pilots for so long, it’s hard to remember what it was like before Savage Steve Holland pulled them from the depths of his demented brain. This film is still a treat after 30 years and I don’t doubt that it will continue to be for the next 30. Happy belated birthday, Better Off Dead!
Here’s the trailer: