A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Matt Seelke presented the 1985 John Cusack comedy Better Off Dead, one of the rare John Cusack films that does not feature sister Joan. The movie was directed by a dude by the name of Savage Steve Holland (it was spelled like that on the van!) who is best known for this film (his first) and perhaps One Crazy Summer, the next year’s followup Cusack/Demi Moore comedy.
But enough background, right? Let’s re-watch the movie and live-review it!
Well, that’s interesting. The film starts with a bizarre allegorical cartoon credit sequence involving a green monster stealing away a girl and an inept lovestruck knight chasing them. I always forget about that. Then it moves quickly to Lane Meyer’s (Cusack) bedroom shrine to his girlfriend Beth. We’re talking 500 pictures on the wall. He brings a framed photo into the bathroom with him to shower. This breakup is going to go over so well.
Fortunately, Beth waits to break up with Lane until after his failed tryout for the Ski Team – for a better skier with the charming last name of Stalin who can (gasp!) ski the fearsome K12 without dying. Lane immediately begins contemplating suicide. Well, it’s either that or ski the K12, right?
I gotta give it up to Mr. Savage. The world he creates for Lane to live in is nightmarish and bizarre. It includes a paperboy (and his horde of BMX-riding pals) obsessed with collecting his two dollar subscription fee. It includes a best friend (the guy who was Booger in Revenge of the Nerds) who snorts everything, including Jell-O and snow.
It includes a mother whose cooking experiments start at boiled bacon (green) and only get worse as the film goes on (self-motile green goop, with raisins? a boiling pot with tentacles and a claw?)
It includes Christmas full-body aardvark suits.
It includes two Howard-Cosell-dressed Asians who are obsessed with drag racing. It includes a math class with insanely obsessed students and a teacher who asks Lane’s permission to date Beth now that he is out of the way. Heck, even the mailman asks. Heck, even Barney Rubble asks through the TV. It includes a blind date who is so excited to go out with Lane that she just charges him for the dinner and sends him home.
It includes an indescribable scene where Lane cooks up a Frankensteinian claymation hamburger that sings Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some”. You know, the typical high-school angst with the Dramastat set to 11.
It includes irritating neighbors with a hot French foreign exchange student Monique – who fortunately has her eye on Lane and pretends to speak no English at all to avoid her tormenting host family.
Lane spends most of his life either failing to commit suicide or trying to win back Beth (who, to be fair, is becoming more and more disappointed in her new boyfriend and his crude attacks on Lane), or trying to ski K12 (and failing). But in the middle of this despairing period of his life he falls for Monique, they have a life-affirming montage where she fixes up his Camaro, and she gives him the confidence to out-ski Stalin on the K12 (on one ski, no less). You know, technically since it was a photo-finish and Lane got a head start at the top, he lost, but everybody acts like he won. And of course with his victory Beth wants him back, but he rejects Beth for Monique, just like you knew would happen. And somehow they manage to get Lane’s Camaro onto home plate at an empty Dodger Stadium so they can make out. Because that’s totally possible.
As far as plot goes, it’s pretty simplistic. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy builds car with new girl. Better Off Dead is more known for its incredible quirkiness. It’s simply so over the top that it’s able to move from one ridiculous scene to another, none of which have any remote plausibility at all. It works by completely denying reality and replacing reality with the painfully sophomoric imagination of what high-school life is like. And for ninety minutes of goofiness, that’s fine.