Better Off Dead…

Better Off DeadSynopsis: After his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) ditches him for a boorish ski jock, Lane (John Cusack) decides that suicide is the only answer. However, his increasingly inept attempts bring him only more agony and embarrassment. Filled with the wildest teen nightmares, a family you can’t help but identify with and a host of wonderful comic characters, Savage Steve Holland’s writing/directorial debut is a masterful look at those painfully funny teen years.

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Better Off Dead… 6.75

eyelights: John Cusack. the wacky humour.
eyesores: the “French” girl. the corny humour.

“Better Off Dead…” is an eighties teen comedy about Lane, a guy who gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend for an arrogant jock (is there any other kind?) and tries to survive each grueling, lonely, miserable day without her. Surrounded by eccentric family members, weird friends, and a variety of outrageous locals, he has his fair share of struggles ahead.

Hilariously nutty and/or corny struggles.

‘Better Off Dead..’ is one of those movies that could only exist in the ’80s (in fact, only the ’80s could produce an auteur filmmaker who brands himself Savage Steve Holland). A semi-autobiographical film, it caricatures teen angst by dialing up its absurd side through slap-stick, dark humour, cartoons, stop-motion animation, plain oddball stuff and a frequent dose of political incorrectness.

Again, only in the ’80s.

The first hour is unconventional fun. After the crappy animated credits that look handmade, it starts off promisingly with the introduction of our hero, Lane (John Cusack), waking up with goggles on. Why? Who knows, who cares? We soon discover how obsessed he is with girlfriend, Beth: he carries her framed picture with him and even has a closet filled with mockups of her.

Not only do we know that this guy is unusual, but we soon realize that the movie will be too. Soon we meet his flaky mom, who transforms any food into inedible grotesqueries, his sad-sack dad whose only focus is keeping the paperboy from trashing his garage door, and Lane’s genius younger brother, who keeps to himself but is constantly coming up with all sorts of bizarre plans.

It’s the small touches that make the film stand out. Everyone’s known (or had) a mom who couldn’t cook, but would she boil bacon, somehow turning it into off-coloured sludge? Everyone’s felt that their parents didn’t pay attention enough, but would they be so oblivious that they wouldn’t notice that their child is trying to commit suicide – to the extent that they would inadvertently participate?

I know… dark.

What’s great though is that Holland tapped into feelings that many of us of have had in those teen years (including, presumably, himself) and dials it up. You can’t help but see yourself in it and laugh at how ridiculous it all was. For instance, we all know that it doesn’t make sense for Lane to pine for Beth because she’s a grade-A @$$shole. But, in those years, you’re blind to such things.

At that age, you’re frequently so bewildered with life that you don’t really know what your place in it is, how you should deal with it and how you should relate with the people around you. You end up doing things that, in retrospect, was clearly stupid or slightly mad. But you feel like an alien and the people around you really aren’t helping. In fact, they themselves may seem alien to you.

In ‘Better Off Dead…’, the paperboy turns into a stalker who follows Lane everywhere, on an merciless quest to collect the 2$ that the family owes him (why he’s after Lane, not the dad, is part of the ridiculousness of it all). Or a couple of Japanese kids who learned English by watching Howard Cosell, constantly challenge him to drag races, all the while doing a sportcaster play-by-play.

And everyone’s asking him to go out with Beth. Because, not only does he get dumped, he suffers the indignity of being asked for permission to ask Beth out by a school teacher, the mail carrier, …etc. Even Barney Rubble takes a break from ‘The Flintstones’ to ask Lane. And his best friend is a freak, a scuzzy outcast who wears top hats and snorts Jell-O in the school cafeteria.

But there is hope: across the way, a French foreign exchange student has moved into his neighbours’ place. And although the lady of the house is trying to hook Monique up with her son, she and Lane will strike up a friendship that will eventually blossom into something more. But first, Lane will have to deal with his boss at work, the annoying jock who keeps harassing him, and Beth.

Look, I fully realize that ‘Better Off Dead..’ can be extremely corny and that it won’t appeal to most people. I also realize that it’s not a great film on many levels: A stop-motion hamburger playing air-guitar to Van Halen (Ouch!)? A clichéd third act that involves a love story and a contest between the jock and our hero? The over-acting? I’m aware of that, and I’ve adjusted my rating to reflect this.

But, for some reason or another, I really enjoy this picture (or, at least, the first 2/3 of it). For me, it’s a late-night classic: it’s weird enough to make me laugh, and it’s not demanding enough that I have to devote too much attention to it. Frankly, I don’t even have nostalgia to blame for it, because I first saw this when I was in my thirties – not while I was a teenager. I have no excuse.

For all this myriad flaws, the only thing I really hate about the picture is Monique’s so-called “French”, which is absolutely insulting. Her English with a “French” accent (French people don’t talk this way… sorry). And her baseball pitch (“she throws like a girl”, as they say), given that it is claimed that she’s a huge baseball fan. Basically, I can’t stand Diane Franklin’s performance as Monique one bit.

On the flip side, I like that Monique is not your average girl, and that she can fix Lane’s Camaro. That’s a nicely progressive touch. But it’s far too little to salvage a performance that is extremely grating in all respects. It’s too bad, too, because the character, as written, is sort of cute and somewhat endearing. It’s the perfect proof that casting can make or break a part and movie.

Another thing that I disliked is the inclusion of a performance by Elizabeth Daily, singing the title song. It’s not all bad, but it’s painful reminder of how old the film is: it’s a dated new-wavey dance song that really doesn’t work now. And, to make matters worse, Daily delivers a dispassionate performance and horrible lip synching. She’s a bit sexy, though, so it softens the blow.

Hey, ‘Better Off Dead…’ isn’t a good film, but it’s a pretty decent picture in the teen comedy genre, given that it comes from a first time writer-director. Sure, it can get really corny, but the first hour has an offbeat enough take on the nonsense that takes place during the teen years that it passes muster. And, with John Cusack as the lead, it’s no wonder that it’s become a bit of a cult favourite.

Dates of viewing: June 15+16, 2014

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