Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Savage Steve Holland’s 80’s comedy Better Off Dead.
(1985) Directed by Savage Steve Holland
Screenplay by Savage Steve Holland
Tagline: You’ve blown up your neighbor’s mom. You seven year old brother has better luck with women than you do. Your girlfriend has a new boyfriend. Relax, you’re never….BETTER OFF DEAD.
What It’s About:
When obsessive teenager Lane Meyer (John Cusack)’s girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) breaks up with him for obnoxiously handsome ski team captain Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), he begins to contemplate suicide. As if that wasn’t funny enough, he is stalked by a tough talking paperboy, harassed by a pair of Japanese drag racing enthusiasts (including Yee Sook Ree from Karate Kid 2), and outshone in every way by his wunderkind seven year old brother who entertains older women and builds a space shuttle out of household appliances. But when the crass mother of his creepy next door neighbor Ricky (Dan Schneider of Head Of The Class) takes on a cute French foreign exchange student (the gorgeous Diane Franklin), things start looking up.
Why I Bought It:
Re-reading that synopsis I just wrote (and re-watching auteur Savage Steve Holland’s 80’s classic after at least a decade hiatus), Better Off Dead would probably never fly today. One of its running jokes is a teenager’s repeated attempts to do himself in. Other hilarities touched upon include molesting a foreign exchange student, knocking a ten year old kid off a mountainside, the pursuit of Lane’s teenage ex-girlfriend by everybody from a mystifyingly popular Geometry teacher (played by the late great Vincent Schiavelli) and a creepy mailman (comedian Taylor Negron) to Barney Rubble (himself), and Lane’s buddy Charles De Mar’s (Curtis Armstrong) perennial quest to find a substitute for cocaine.
Yet, I saw this when I was ten or eleven years old and loved it, sorely identifying with the put upon Lane and still laughing at the absurdities of his life. Cusack plays Lane with the stoic acceptedness of Buster Keaton, the bumbling straight man who is the only guy in the movie that doesn’t get the joke.
Holland alternately peppers Better Off Dead with helpings of real awkwardness (Lane’s flashback meeting with Beth, where both her and Lane’s self-conscious inner thoughts can be heard) and romance, and then blasts it with some really out there zaniness. Lane’s mom boils bacon green and appears to be steaming a star spawn of Cthulhu in a pot at one point. She passes out gift wrapped stacks of Stouffer’s frozen dinners for Christmas and serves a French-themed dinner consisting of fries, bread, dressing, and “Peru” (Perrier water). Gangs of murderous paperboys pursue Lane through an ominous back-lit nightscape, and a claymation cheeseburger David Lee Roth shreds across his workstation. Even Lane’s own sketchbook doodles berate him.
The supporting cast is just as likable as Cusack. I’ve got to mention two of my three biggest 1980’s coming of age crushes were in this flick together, the doll-faced, sweet but scrappy voiced Elizabeth Daily, who sings the title song at the high school dance and was Pee Wee Herman’s admirer Dottie in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (and who, amazingly, looks even better now than she did then), and Diane Franklin who plays Monique, and seriously shot me through the heart Bon Jovi style in the scene where she starts Lane’s long dormant Camaro. That image of her in the Dodger’s cap and coveralls, that bright smile shining through that motor oil was indelible. The other, in case you’re wondering, was Kerri Green in Lucas, who was just poetry to an adolescent boy.
Curtis Armstrong and Dan Schneider are both pretty hilarious in this movie, with Curtis being a bit of a scene stealer, and Schneider underplaying what could’ve easily been a very unseemly role, yet somehow in the end winds up sympathetic. Aaron Dozier’s Roy Stalin is a typical 80’s slimeball villain, a caricature of Johnny from Karate Kid, but he plays it to the hilt with his perfectly styled hair, ridiculously straight teeth, and obnoxious line delivery (“Lookin’ GOOD, Meyer. Lookin’ REAL GOOD.”) Lane’s father, played by David Ogden Stiers, seems at times, as he should, like an adult version of Lane, just world weary with the weirdness of his wife and children (“WHAT in the name of ALL that is HOLY?”), yet himself a source of comedy with his terrible attempts at employing youthful slang and his war with the paperboy over the sanctity of his garage door windows. Kim Darby, as mentioned, is hilarious as a slightly psychotic Suzy Homemaker.
I’m a sucker for 80’s movie music too, and this soundtrack has some great songs you won’t hear anywhere else the aformentioned Elizabeth Daily’s two tracks, “One Way Love (Better Off Dead)” and “A Little Luck,” Rupert Hine’s “I’ve Been Arrested By You,” and in particular, Howard Jones’ “Like To Get To Know You Well” are excellent, nostalgic tracks, to say nothing of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and Van Halen’s thunderous “Everybody Wants Some.”
My friends and I quoted this movie up and down when I was growing up (“Meyer? Is that like in Oscar Meyer? Hey Beth, is he your main wiener man?” “Do you know what the street value of this mountain is?” “Gee I’m real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky. The doctors said she’ll be OK, I guess she just can’t eat any spicy foods for awhile,” and “Lane, I’ve been going to this school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”), and though the political correctedness of the subject matter may have changed, for the most part it’s not too badly dated.
I dare say the overall theme might even still speak to depressed teens today, as it once did to me. That theme is, much of life’s seemingly most insurmountable tribulations are inherently absurd. Don’t take everything so serious.
In other words, go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.
When Lane comes home and discovers an angry Monique pitching oranges at a No Parking sign, she confesses to him that she speaks English (she has been faking a lack of fluency in order to avoid Ricky and his mom).
Monique: I figured if we had nothing to say to each other, he would get bored, go away. Instead he uses every excuse to put his testicles all over me.
Lane: Excuse me?
Monique: How do you say? You know, like Octopus? Testicles?
Lane: Oh…Tentacles. N-T. Tentacles. Big difference.
There are a lot to choose from (Charles’ uncontrollable, continuous laughter at the dance when Stalin rips on him and Lane as “his vote for cutest couple…but you better shave her before you take her home” is one), but the scene that always comes to mind for me is one of Lane’s numerous suicide attempts.
Lane stands on the top step in his garage, contemplating his own demise. After looping a bungie cord around his neck and throwing it over the ceiling beam, he suddenly looks up and says;
“Hey wait a minute here. This is death here. I can’t do this. I’ve never even been to New York City. I’ve never been anywhere.”
As he begins to take the makeshift noose off, his mother opens the door and walks backwards into the garage, running the vacuum as she cleans the hallway. When the door opens she nudges him off the garage steps, then whaps him with the door a couple times as he dangles behind the door, struggling.
It still cracks me up, and is very indicative of Lane’s overall plight as an overwrought teenager saddled with mainly oblivious parents.
Would I Buy It Again? Yes, though full disclosure, I almost never purchase comedies (I usually have terrible luck with them) – this was a gift from my wife, who knows me better than I know myself sometimes.
Next In The Queue: Big Trouble In Little China