Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Screenplay: Savage Steve Holland
Stars: John Cusack (Lane Myer), Diane Franklin (Monique Junot), Amanda Wyss (Beth Truss), Curtis Armstrong (Charles De Mar), Aaron Dozier (Roy Stalin), David Ogden Stiers (Al Myer), Kim Darby (Jenny Myer), Laura Waterbury (Mrs. Smith), Daniel Schneider (Ricky Smith), Scooter Stevens (Badger Myer), Chuck Mitchell (Rocko), Vincent Schiavelli (Mr. Kerber)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1985
Country: USA
Better Off Dead DVD Cover

Of all the teen comedies made in the 1980s--and there were oh so many--Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead stands on its own as a unique, kooky gem. Call it the nadir of teenage-embarrassment comedy, Better Off Dead strikes chords with anyone who has known and been able to laugh at middle-class American teenage angst at its worst. The fact that Holland manages to derive near-surrealistic laughs from the specter of teenage suicide is a feat in and of itself, but he also manages to create a movie around it that is both sweet and different.

Holland, who was 25 at the time that he wrote and directed the movie, knows exactly what buttons to push, and he does so with a sharp sense of comic exaggeration. Thus, the main character, the affable and insecure Lane Meyer (John Cusack), is not just in love with his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), but he is in love with her to the point that he plasters every square inch of his bedroom wall with pictures of her and sleeps with her picture under his pillow (not to mention the hilarious Beth coat hangers in his closet). Right away, in purely visual jokes, Holland nails the humor of teenage love: Teens are rarely in love with other people, but rather with the idea of being in love.

Of course, such fanciful romanticism is usually doomed by its very nature, and Holland gets right at the pain of break-up when Beth unceremoniously dumps Lane for the hunky captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). It is probably not a coincidence that Lane's nemesis is named after a ruthless Soviet dictator, as Stalin proceeds to make Lane's life (more) miserable with constant taunts and jeers about both his inability to maintain Beth as a girlfriend and his not making it onto the high school ski team. Beth doesn't make things easier, and Holland gives her a perfectly destructive break-up speech, the kind every 16-year-old guy fears: "I think it would be in my best interests to go out with someone more popular ... better-looking ... who drives a nicer car ..."

Lane has other problems, as well, notably his slightly off-kilter family, who are again drawn as slightly exaggerated, but still recognizable characters. Dad (David Odgen Stiers) is a rational man caught in an irrational world, and his studied attempts to connect with his son on the teenage level are comedic gems about the generation divide (he is also adept with such typical Dad-isms as "Lane, a closet door may be closed as well it may be opened"). Lane's mom (Kim Darby) is a well-meaning, but horrid cook whose evening concoctions are either slimy, green, or unintentionally gelatinous (or some combination of all three), and at one point one of her meals actually crawls off the plate by itself. And then there's Lane's younger brother, Badger (Scooter Stevens), a creepy freckle-face who never talks or makes eye contact with anyone, but is capable of building working laser guns and actually making good on a book titled How to Pick Up Trashy Women.

Holland's loving sense of exaggeration expands outside Lane's immediate family to their across-the-street neighbors, the Smiths. There, the mother-dominated, overweight, and nerdish Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider) assumes that, just because a cute French foreign exchange student, Monique Junot (Diane Franklin), is staying with them, she is automatically his girlfriend. Monique, in fact, may be the only sane, level-headed person in the entire movie, although she is drawn to Lane despite (or perhaps because of) his suicidal angst. Lane's suicide attempts take such ludicrous forms as swabbing himself down with primer at the dinner table so that he may burn himself to death and a mistimed jump off a bridge that lands him a garbage truck, leading to the movie's best line (later ripped off by Emilio Estevez in Men at Work) in which two African-American tree trimmers lament, "Man, now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that."

Although Better Off Dead sticks closely to the teen underdog formula, Savage Steve Holland's slightly irreverent take on everything infuses it with an energy and sense of oddity that is unique and charming. As a director, Holland isn't particularly inventive, although he knows just how to stage each joke at Lane's expense for maximum embarrassment. Lane suffers indignity after indignity at the hands of everyone from his geometry teachers (who asks if he can take out Beth), to the grizzled owner of the Pig Burger fast-food joint where Lane has to take a part-time job, to a demonic paperboy who is constantly stalking him for two dollars. Yet, as is so often the case in life, Lane finds redemption in the most unlikely of places, in this case in the arms of Monique (although anyone with eyes can plainly see that Diane Franklin is much cuter than Amanda Wyss, and her character is French to boot!).

After so many interchangeable teen comedies, Better Off Dead is an amusing example of how old material can be renewed with a unique slant. It doesn't hurt that John Cusack was cast in the lead role--he brings to the character of Lane Myer a charming credibility that continues to define his career. Even when Lane is at his lowest, it's impossible not to like him and feel for him. Cusack invests what could have been a sad-sack character with a believable resilience, although you can't fault him for being overshadowed in the scene where a claymation hamburger plays Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some." But that's a whole other story.

Better Off Dead DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Subtitles English, Spanish
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateJuly 16, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
For the first time, Better Off Dead is presented in its proper aspect ratio of 1.85:1. If you go to the Internet Movie Database listing for this movie, you will find in the "Goofs" section a number of revealing mistakes, including part of the camera equipment being visible at the bottom of the screen during the climactic ski race and the intrusion of an extra nozzle during a joke involving an overzealous deodorant can. Well, guess what? All of those so-called "goofs" were submitted by people who had only seen the movie in open-matte on home video. When the image is properly matted as on this DVD, all of those elements are hidden as the director intended, which is just one more reminder why it is so important to see movies in their intended aspect ratio and that "more space at the top and bottom of the image" is not necessarily a good thing.

The image itself looks good for a low-budget '80s comedy. Colors are strong and well-saturated, particularly during the animated opening sequence, and the image is generally clean of artifacts, although a few scratches show up here and there. The only complaint is that the image seems quite grainy throughout, which may have to do with the movie having been shot on low-quality film stock.

English Dolby 2.0 Stereo
The two-channel stereo mix works well with the material. It is clean and does a nice job of presenting the cheesy '80s pop songs on the soundtrack (the budget was obviously too low to use songs by recognizable artists, so most of the tunes were written by composer Rupert Hine).

No supplements are included.

Copyright 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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