Saturday, November 11, 2023

#2,935. Better Off Dead (1985) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


While director Savage Steve Holland and star John Cusack were in the process of making One Crazy Summer, which marked their second collaboration, Cusack broke away for a few hours to finally check out the first film they did together: 1984’s Better Off Dead.

And the actor was not happy with what he saw. In fact, it is rumored he walked out before it was over.

Worked into a frenzy, Cusack approached Holland and (according to the director) told him Better Off Deadwas the worst thing I have ever seen”. The enraged star then told Holland “I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don’t speak to me”.



And more than a bit unfair, because while Better Off Dead doesn’t always work, Holland and his team gave it their all, throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink and putting a madcap spin on what could have easily been another run-of-the-mill ‘80s romantic comedy.

Lane Myers (Cusack) is crushed. Not only did he miss out on making the high school ski team, but his girlfriend of six months, Beth (Amanda Wyss), broke up with him to instead date Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), the obnoxious captain of that very team. Neither of Lane’s parents (David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby) seem sympathetic to his plight, so the heartbroken teen decides to kill himself.

Try as he might, though, Lane can’t finish the job. So, his good friend Charles (Curtis Armstrong) offers another possible solution: beat Roy in a downhill race on the K-12, the most dangerous slope in Northern California, and win back Beth.

The only problem is… Lane never seems to win at anything! That is, until he meets Monique (Diane Franklin), the French foreign exchange student who recently moved in with his neighbor Mrs. Smith (Laura Waterbury) and her portly teenage son Ricky (Dan Schneider). With Monique’s help, Lane may have a chance to recapture Beth’s heart.

That’s the main thrust of the story, but only scratches the surface as to the insanity thrown our way during Better Off Dead’s 97 minutes. Lane, who bought a ’67 Camaro but can’t get it running, drives the family’s station wagon to school every day, and during the trip is usually challenged to a drag race by two Japanese brothers (Yuji Okumoto and Brian Imada), one of whom speaks no English while the other only talks like his favorite sportscaster: Howard Cosell!

Curtis Armstrong, so good as Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, has his moments as Lane’s drug-obsessed best friend, Charles. At one point, looking for the ultimate high, Charles even tries snorting snow! Also funny is the sequence where Lane, coerced by his father, gets a job at Pig Burgers, a disgusting fast-food joint. While making the burgers, Lane fantasizes that he is Dr. Frankenstein, and even brings one of the burgers to life! This leads to a very entertaining stop-motion segment, in which the “live burger” performs a song.

And let’s not forget Johnny the paperboy (Demian Slade), who harasses Lane throughout the film, demanding his two-dollar fee for the newspaper subscription. I also got a kick out of the side story featuring Lane’s always-silent younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), who, unbeknownst to everyone, is a scientific genius. Holland keeps the energy high throughout Better off Dead, hitting us with one insane scene after another.

Of course, along with the “hits”, there are a few misses. I thought Stiers and Darby were wasted as Lane’s oblivious parents; Dad’s “war” with the paperboy to keep his garage windows safe from flying newspapers never really goes anywhere, while Darby’s schtick as the goofy mom who can’t cook gets old quick.

Also, the initial plight of Monique, the cute exchange student, came off as… creepy. Turns out Mrs. Smith only signed up to sponsor Monique so she could date her son Ricky (played by regular Holland collaborator Dan Schneider). And the minute we are introduced to Monique, we know in which direction the film’s story will go.

Then there is the exaggerated Roy Stalin, who is such an over-the-top blowhard that we have no idea what Beth, or any other girl, could possibly see in him.

As for Cusack, he’s good as the oft-pathetic Lane, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of his best performances. In fact, I had more fun with the film’s supporting characters than I did Lane.

Cusack has softened his stance on Better Off Dead over the years. In a 2013 online Reddit chat, he said he didn’t hate making Better Off Dead, just that it could have been better, adding “But I think that about all my films“. He closed by saying he has “nothing against the film” and is glad people “love it still”.

And despite its weaknesses, there is definitely a lot here to love!
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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