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There’s always been something very appealing about the offbeat film-style and slightly absurd production methods of Better Off Dead (originally, Better Off Dead...). It never really finds its footing and is hard to nail down as far as tone and even character, and yet, it is undeniably fun to watch, and as the years pass, becomes all the more a treasured pocket of curiosity in the bubble just before its star would become a household name.
By 1985, John Cusack, had basically cameoed in three films, playing minor parts that gave him hardly any screen time, one being the Molly Ringwald game-changer, Sixteen Candles (1984). At seventeen years old, he got his first starring role in the road romance comedy, The Sure Thing, a very funny film itself, from legendary director Rob Reiner. It did well at the box office and even earned the young star some high praise for his naturalistic charms and everyman (boy) qualities. A few months later, he was back in theaters with this, and though less a success financially, it performed well, though critics were mixed. Cusack however, was adamant: he hated it.
Directed by Savage Steve Holland, in his film debut, and who had to this point worked primarily as an animator, most notably creating the “Whammy” for the popular daytime game show Press Your Luck (1983–1986), the film is an eclectic mish-mash of sight gags, teen romance, whacky comedy and even a touch of mild horror that Cusack said made him look like a fool. According to Holland, at a screening of the film, Cusack walked out and later told him he had been tricked, and that he would never trust Holland again¹. This devastated Holland and as he said, made him not care about movies anymore. Aside from One Crazy Summer, a film he was working on with Cusack at the time of the screening, he has mainly spent his career since in television.
So how about it? Does Cusack have reason to hold this with such distaste? (He still refuses to talk about it.) To answer that, I’ll go back to 1985, when I actually saw the film on release. At the time, I didn’t really know who Cusack was, but I knew a few of his co-stars, namely Curtis Armstrong, who got most of the big laughs in Revenge of the Nerds the previous year and Risky Business the year before that. Now here he was again and sure enough, got nearly all the funniest lines, including his retort to a bully at the big dance. I also recognized David Ogden Stiers as Cusack’s father. He was on television’s M*A*S*H, playing the arrogant Major Winchester. Here though, he was anything but that guy. He was funny and warm-hearted.
But here’s the thing. I liked Cusack as Lane Meyer. Still do. In fact, at the time, I saw a lot of myself in him, as I’m sure many still do who watch the film, and it’s hard to see where he thinks his character has been wronged by Holland. Yes, the film steps over the line of satire a few times and often wallows in absurdist fare, sometimes over doing it, but there is always a sentimental charm to it, a poke at the zany life that is teenage romance.
Cusack plays a young man in the throes of a failed relationship to a girl named Beth (Amanda Wyss), whom he has obsessed relentlessly, convincing himself she is perfect. She’s fallen for the new captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier) and so Lane figures there’s no point left in life, might as well end it all. This leads to a string of hapless suicide attempts that always end, naturally, in funny failure.
That is until his crazed neighbors take in a French foreign-exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin), whom he falls for and soon pursues. Along the way though, Lane deals with other hurdles in daily life, including his loopy mother (Kim Darby) who is always cooking things that seem to squirm off plates, a little brother (Scooter Stevens) who is building a space shuttle in his bedroom (and huge success with older women), a pair of Japanese drag-racers who learned English by watching Howard Cosell, and of course, a persistent paper boy (Demian Slade) who wants his two dollars, the last of which is a running gag that sees the boy show up at all the wrong times and chase Lane into the next scene.
Holland even sneaks a clever bit of animation in this where Lane, working for Pig Burger, a sleazy fast food chain (managed by none other than Porky himself, Chuck Mitchell), drifts into some daydreaming and imagines two hamburgers falling in love to Van Halen‘s Everybody Wants Some. It’s a goofy break from the story, but does reveal Lane’s detachment from his real life and sets up a moment later when humiliation spurs him down a smarter path.
There’s also a fantastic music score led by Rupert Hine and his stellar Arrested By You, a synth-pop piece of perfect 80s bubble gum rock that still hits the mark. And there’s no getting around one of the best in-movie band performances of the decade by Elizabeth Daily (E.G. Daily), performing One Way Love during the film’s big dance scene. That mid-song screech is classic.
Better Off Dead is a sharply-written comedy that misses a few opportunities but is nonetheless a unique little gem that might not be as smart or commerical as Cusack’s more successful 80s movies, but is far from the disaster some might claim it to be. In fact, watching it again, there is a warmth now to it that feels fresh. More so, the movie even kinda feels daring, especially in an age when our teen films are so slickly packaged to be either sacharin sweet or sexually-depraved. Better Off Dead feels sincere, and attempts to give some humor to the bumps we all trip over in teenage life. Now’s a perfect time to give it a look.