Better off Dead (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He can’t kill himself.

            Teenager Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is obsessed with his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) and has pictures of her plastered all over the walls of his bedroom and even on the hangers in his closet, but she ends up dumping him for a more popular guy. Lane falls into despair and tries to kill himself, but when that fails he decides to try and win her back by challenging her new boyfriend to a daring ski race down a dangerous slope.

The film has a free form style that is initially fresh and funny. Director Savage Steve Holland is a noted animator and the segment where a cartoon monster eats up Beth’s new boyfriend is engaging as is the claymation sequence involving a singing/dancing hamburger and his lady fries. The script is devoid of the crude humor, derivative sex and foul language that permeated the other teen comedies from the 80’s, which is nice. The adults here are not played as stupid, overly authoritative jerks, which was another common trend in teen comedies, but instead, at least in the case of Lane’s dad Al (David  Ogden Stiers) a very rational and intelligent man who ended up being my favorite character. The scenes inside the school and in the cafeteria look authentic because real teenagers were used for the supporting cast and they weren’t all good looking models. The casting director keenly puts in a wide assortment of body types and faces just like you would see walking down the hallways of any high school.

The supporting cast is excellent and to some extent outshines Cusack who seems a bit aloof. I was especially impressed with Curtis Armstrong as Lane’s cocaine obsessed friend Charles who sports the perfect teen grunge look and was already in his 30’s when he played the part even though you would never have guessed it. It was a lot of fun seeing Kim Darby in a very atypical role as Lane’s ditzy mother Jenny. My image of her as the strong-willed Mattie Ross in the original True Grit is so thoroughly etched in my mind that it is hard to imagine her in any other type of role, but the change of pace here does her well.  Wyss and Diane Franklin, who plays Lane’s new girlfriend Monique, are both pleasing on the eyes.

Some of the humor is funny, but tends to become increasingly unfunny as the film progresses. Call me nitpicky, but a lot of the jokes do not hold-up under the scrutiny of even the most basic of logic. For instance Al gets out of bed early in the morning to open up his garage door to try and save the one remaining window on it that hasn’t been destroyed by the delivery boy who has a propensity to hurl newspapers through them, but wouldn’t a normal person have cancelled the subscription when this continued to happen, or sued the newspaper delivery service, or the boy’s parents? Also, it didn’t make sense for the newspaper boy to come after Lane for his money when the subscription was most assuredly under Al’s name and he was the one with a job. There is another segment involving Lane driving in a car and becoming so upset by the fact that every station on the radio is playing a break-up song that he tears it from the dashboard and throws it out the car window when simply turning it off would have been much easier. The running gag involving Jenny’s wacky new dinner recipes becomes stupid and exaggerated.

The climatic ski sequence is ruined by the fact that the viewer has already seen several characters ski down the same slope already, so by the time we get to the scene it becomes redundant. The songs used on the soundtrack are flat and it is easy to see why none of them charted.

I know when this film came out in 1985 I refused to go see it because I wasn’t going to watch any film directed by a man with the first name of Savage, which to me seemed like a name for someone who is a goofy self-promoter and not a serious filmmaker. Now, after having finally seen the film I can safely say that my initial feelings were correct. This is not a movie, but more a compilation of gags. The plot and characters are shallow to the extreme and the story goes nowhere and lacks any type of momentum, or pace.  As a teen comedy this thing ranks poorly because it is just an empty, vapid excuse for director Holland to show off his nifty animation skills and nothing more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 11, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Director: Savage Steve Holland

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

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