Friends and neighbours, ahh, listen to me now! Ha ha, it’s Burl here again with a movie review for you, and this time it’s a beloved 80s teen comedy set at just around this time of the year! Well, it covers December and goes into January I guess, so there’s a little bit of Christmas cheer in there, much as we find in another, lesser, 80s teen pic, Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home! But this one is fondly recalled by me and by my friends, and by, I gather, quite a few other folk as well! It’s Better Off Dead!
Of course the movie stars John Cusack, and with this he was following up yet another vaguely Christmastime teen comedy romance, The Sure Thing, released the year before! Here he plays Lane Meyer, a prototype for the character he’d play later in Say Anything: a guy who’s kind of sporty (Lane, or at least his stunt double, ha ha, is a decent skier), sort of cool (he has a cute horseyface girlfriend and a hot, if immobile, car), but also a little bit of a nebbish, loser, and geek! So I guess they’re trying to have and eat cake at once by making Lane an Everyman, but with movie protagonist qualities (good looks, athleticism, a Camaro) that the genuine Everyman rarely possesses! His best and seemingly only friend is Charles De Mar, an eccentric who wears a top hat, snorts anything he can coax up a straw, and is played perfectly by Curtis Armstrong of Revenge of the Nerds fame; and Charles, I suppose, by his stovepipe whimsicality is meant to provide hard evidence of Lane’s mid-to-lower level social station!
Lane’s girlfriend Beth, played by Amanda Wyss from A Nightmare on Elm Street, dumps him right off the bat, and this provides the motivation for what slim narrative drive the picture offers! Mostly it’s a shapeless accumulation of incident, some of it almost realistic teen angst comedy, like the breakup and the ski race against blonde bad guy Roy Stalin; some more fanciful, like the demoniac paperboy or the two Japanese brothers who street race against Lane every chance they get, colour-commenting on the race in a Howard Cosell voice over loudspeakers on their car; and some much crazier still, as in the scenes where Lane’s mute little brother creates a laser gun or a bedroom brothel or a home-built space shuttle! And Lane himself spins off into fantasyland regularly, imagining himself as a Dr. Frankenstein creating living hamburgers who sing and play like Eddie Van Halen! Of course there are the repeated, if halfhearted, suicide attempts, which had aged badly even between the time the movie was shot and when it came out, and haven’t gotten any better since! There’s not a lot of hilarity to be wrung from teen suicide when you get right down to it!
In the course of the movie we also meet Lane’s father, who is perpetually annoyed with the immobile car and with other bizarre family behaviours, and who is played by David Ogden Stiers from The Cheap Detective and, in a later reteaming with Cusack, Shadows and Fog! Lane’s mother is played by Kim Darby from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and she keeps busy wearing crazy costumes and cooking unpalatable meals! Across the street is a yet more grotesque family: Mrs. Smith and her bulbous, crochet-loving son Ricky, but they have as a houseguest a French foreign exchange student played by supercute Diane Franklin, known from The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession! Ha ha, and when she wears a ballcap and gets automotive grease all over his face, she’ll simply capture your heart just as she does Lane’s! And let’s not forget Dan Schneider from Making the Grade and Hot Resort as the neighbour Ricky, who shows off some excellent physical comedy skills in the course of the picture! Ha ha, that little futile jump he does when trying to get his balloon back is priceless!
This was director Savage Steve Holland’s feature film debut, and he recruited Cusack again the following year for One Crazy Summer! That one never developed the legs of its predecessor, though – ha ha, back in the old VHS days, Better Off Dead got the repeat replays from my friends and I, while the follow-up got maybe one viewing in toto! That doesn’t mean Better Off Dead is a great film – ha ha, far from it! It’s as shapeless as a sea-level blobfish and lots of the jokes don’t hit; but on the other hand plenty of them do, and it’s got an antic sense of absurdity that carries it along nicely! We get some fine comic performances, and the bit with the math teacher, played by Vincent Schiavelli from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, whose students hang on his every word and live for his homework assignments, is a good example of how the movie occasionally strikes a relatable chord for all of us Everymen but does so in a way that’s both overextended and baggy, yet still pointed and funny! Anyway, its good nature goes a long way, and so I give Better Off Dead two dollars and a fifty cent tip!