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Awfully Good: Better Off Dead

02.24.2016
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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.


Worth at least two dollars. Buy this movie here!

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!

 

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.

Source: JoBlo.com

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2:01AM on 02/25/2016
While this movie in no way fits the theme of this column, I love that you reviewed it here! This was a cable TV staple of mine back in the 80s.
While this movie in no way fits the theme of this column, I love that you reviewed it here! This was a cable TV staple of mine back in the 80s.
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12:08AM on 02/25/2016
As a kid a watched this movie almost everyday for like two years. One of my all time favorites.
As a kid a watched this movie almost everyday for like two years. One of my all time favorites.
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10:42PM on 02/24/2016
This movie taught me the difference between tentacles and testicles
This movie taught me the difference between tentacles and testicles
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8:51PM on 02/24/2016
"Lane, I've been going to this high school for 7 1/2 years, I'm no dummy" lol god this is still one of my favorite movies ever. Its so quirky and irreverent. Yeah the 80's was filled with cheesy and corny stuff. But in truth the 80's was also the height, and probably the last decade, of unique and original in Hollywood. Where there were no qualms about taking chances on things that didn't make sense. Cusack had two movies like that, this and the other was One Crazy Summer which shared in its
"Lane, I've been going to this high school for 7 1/2 years, I'm no dummy" lol god this is still one of my favorite movies ever. Its so quirky and irreverent. Yeah the 80's was filled with cheesy and corny stuff. But in truth the 80's was also the height, and probably the last decade, of unique and original in Hollywood. Where there were no qualms about taking chances on things that didn't make sense. Cusack had two movies like that, this and the other was One Crazy Summer which shared in its odd factor. I miss the 80's for its movies like this and so many other truly great comedies that I could sit for hours listing. This would still be one of the top 5 for me.
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6:10PM on 02/24/2016
Ah those Roaring 80s gave us some truely awe inspiring flicks... (this and One Crazy Summer by Savage Steve Holland)
"do you know the street value of this Mountain???" exclains Curtis Armstrong.... yes i've been saying that line for 30 years... I FREAKIN LOVE THIS MOVIE!!!
I wish there was a better copy available on DVD or blu-ray... the bare bones one that is released is just Meh for the sheer number of times I've seen this one.... this is up there with Princess Bride and THAT got a GREAT
Ah those Roaring 80s gave us some truely awe inspiring flicks... (this and One Crazy Summer by Savage Steve Holland)
"do you know the street value of this Mountain???" exclains Curtis Armstrong.... yes i've been saying that line for 30 years... I FREAKIN LOVE THIS MOVIE!!!
I wish there was a better copy available on DVD or blu-ray... the bare bones one that is released is just Meh for the sheer number of times I've seen this one.... this is up there with Princess Bride and THAT got a GREAT blue-ray..
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8:52PM on 02/24/2016
I started typing my post and had it all finished with the exact same quote about the street value of the mountain lol. I didn't read your post yet just started typing mine but I had the same quote in mind. Thankfully I saw yours before I posted, so it was easy to change. But yup, one of the greatest comedies of the 80's for me.
I started typing my post and had it all finished with the exact same quote about the street value of the mountain lol. I didn't read your post yet just started typing mine but I had the same quote in mind. Thankfully I saw yours before I posted, so it was easy to change. But yup, one of the greatest comedies of the 80's for me.
4:12PM on 02/24/2016
I never really looked at it as awfully good, I just thought it was good.
I never really looked at it as awfully good, I just thought it was good.
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10:28PM on 02/25/2016
I was going to post the same thing.
I was going to post the same thing.
11:25AM on 02/24/2016
A true 80's classic and one of Cusack's best. My favorite aspect is easily the whole paperboy and $2 dollar feud that runs through the entire film.
A true 80's classic and one of Cusack's best. My favorite aspect is easily the whole paperboy and $2 dollar feud that runs through the entire film.
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