Awfully Good: Better Off Dead
Forget EDDIE THE EAGLE, if you want to meet a truly inspirational skier, you should watch…
Better Off Dead (1985)
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Stars: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Curtis Armstrong
After losing his spot on the ski team and his beloved girlfriend to the ski team captain, Lane Myer decides that life might not be worth living.
BETTER OFF DEAD is one of my favorite movies. I don't know that I'd consider it bad like the movies typically found in this column, but I've gotten many an email suggesting it over the years. The 1985 cult classic is definitely a strange film, filled with random oddities and an "anything goes" attitude, but it's a film that's purposefully off-kilter and knows exactly what it's doing. Plus, what's so "bad" about a dark comedy about teen suicide with claymation hamburgers that sing Van Halen, Asian street racers who sound like Howard Cosell, and homicidal paperboys?
Aw, what the hell—let's do it.
A visual metaphor for John Cusack's recent career.
The film comes from the warped mind of writer-director Savage Steve Holland, who had a great cinematic run in the 80s but has since moved on to television directing. (He's also the man responsible for perhaps my favorite Saturday morning cartoon of all time, EEK! THE CAT.) While the plot may sound dark, BETTER OFF DEAD was actually an autobiographical tale for Holland, who did become suicidal after losing his girlfriend to a ski captain and really had to contend with a menacing paperboy angry over $2. Dreaming up new ways to kill himself made his friends laugh and that spark of an idea eventually became this movie.
Poor Flubber never saw it coming.
BETTER OFF DEAD exists in the heightened world of Greendale, Northern California, a magical land where high schoolers treat their math teachers like rock stars and aardvark-themed fashion is all the rage. It's also one of those movies that's "on" all the time, with non-stop jokes and gags that demand attention. There are a million quotable lines from this flick and just as many memorable moments. Obviously, the sportscaster Asians and the $2 paperboy are the popular favorites, but I love all the little funny things you discover on each rewatch. Like Ricky lazily jumping to catch his balloon. Or the fact that the entire basketball team is eating baby food at lunch. BETTER OFF DEAD also works as a prototypical 80s ski movie, with everything coming to head at a climactic race down the mountain. How come movies don't end with super serious ski-off challenges anymore?
There were definitely warning signs during Buffalo Bill's teenage years.
Young John Cusack is at his best as Lane Myer, a teenager seriously obsessed with his girlfriend Beth. (His closet alone could get him a restraining order.) It'd be easy to dismiss a character like Lane for being a stalker or mopey attention-seeker, what with all his suicidal cries for help, but Cusack imbues him with enough sympathy and fun spontaneity so that you not only commiserate with Lane, you actually laugh every time he tries to unsuccessfully hang himself while his mom vacuums or jump off a bridge during White Boy Trash Day. Even though grumpy grown up John Cusack would go on to despise this movie, teenage John Cusack is obviously having fun with the role and not afraid to make a fool of himself.
Children always know when they get a visit from the Q-Tip Fairy.
As great as Cusack is, BETTER OFF DEAD is nothing without its random assortment of off-the-wall characters. There's Lane's oddball family—his paranoid dad obsessed with the garage door and making sure his son isn't on drugs, his oblivious mom who constantly makes bizarre food, and his silent younger brother Badger who is some sort of evil genius and admirer of trashy women. Lane's best friend Charles De Mar, played by 80s staple sidekick Curtis Armstrong, is a lifelong high schooler who can't get his hand on any drugs, so he snorts Jell-O and snow. The douchebag ski team captain, actually named Roy Stalin, is one of the great 80s bullies, up there with William Zabka from KARATE KID and Ted McGinley from REVENGE OF THE NERDS. Film fans might also appreciate bit parts by the late, great Vincent Schiavelli and comedian Taylor Negron.
Just when you think gingers can't get any creepier…
Diane Franklin's Monique, however, deserves her own paragraph. The adorable French foreign exchange student spends most of the movie being held hostage by creepy doofus Ricky and his explosive mother, garnering your sympathy from the get-go. But Franklin more than holds her own with Cusack when the two eventually fall for each other and Monique plays a great, believable catalyst for Lane to get his life together. She may be one of those impossibly perfect female love interests, but dammit, sometimes there's nothing wrong with that. Also, the memory of watching Monique fix a Camaro has been forever burned in to my brain since childhood.
Little did she know, but Monique was heading to Grosse Point Boink.
There's an unending supply of seemingly random and weird elements in BETTER OFF DEAD, yet it somehow manages to come together as a cohesive whole that's fun and watchable 30 years later. People always gush over Lloyd Dobler and his stereo, but I'll take Lane Meyer and his saxophone any day of the week.
FUN FACT: Ricky would later go on to write and star in GOOD BURGER.
Every great line you'd expect.
The best from the Asian street racers, random trashy women, Van Halen-burger and more.
Tina Littlewood gets stripped down to her underwear, but don't look, lest you incur the wrath of the basketball team.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Lane tries to kill himself
- A newspaper boy asks for $2
- Lane crashes his car
- Lane's mom cooks something gross
- The garage door gets messed up
- Someone asks Lane if they can ask out Beth
Double shot if:
- John Cusack gets thrown in the trash
Thanks to Kevin, Linnea, Andrew, another Kevin, and J.C. for suggesting this week's movie!
|Extra Tidbit:||Some of the cast and crew got together a few years back for a reunion reading of the script.|