Friday, November 8, 2013

Film Friday: Better Off Dead (1985)

With the holiday season upon us, it’s time to talk about one of my favorite movies that takes place during the holidays: Better Off Dead. Written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and staring John Cusack, Better Off Dead is a teen comedy kind of like those put out by John Hughes... only very different. And to me, this is one of the funniest movies you will ever see.

Here’s the story: high-schooler Lane Myer (John Cusack) is in love with his girlfriend Beth. Beth, however, doesn’t love Lane, and she dumps Lane for Roy, the captain of the school’s ski team. This causes Lane to become suicidal. Fortunately for him, his half-hearted attempts to kill himself fail. Soon enough, he meets the foreign exchange student who is staying with his neighbors. They fall in love. And when Roy insults Lane’s new girlfriend, Lane decides to defend her honor with a ski race. Sounds like a Hallmark film, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s not.
See, what John Hughes did so brilliantly in his films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club was that he identified the things that cause teenage angst and he told the audience that everyone feels this stuff, even the kids who otherwise seem to have such perfect lives. This was reassuring. It made kids feel less alone and less freakish. He also told them that everything would be all right eventually. These messages resonated.

Steven Holland’s approach was a tad bit different. Like Hughes, Holland isolated the things that cause teenage angst: getting dumped, having uncool parents, competing with a sibling, being shown up in competitions, getting bullied, and generally feeling inferior. Unlike Hughes, however, Holland did not reassure us. No. To the contrary, Holland amplified the hell out of everything... to the point of unreality. Indeed, let’s go through the plot again and you might see what I mean.
High-schooler Lane Myer is in love with his girlfriend Beth. Only, it’s not love... it’s obsession. Lane is obsessed with Beth to the point that he has hundreds of photos of her around his house. Then she dumps him. And this isn’t a John Hughes dump where the deed happens in a brief-but-respectful scene and then the main characters finds solace with their friends. No. This is a never-ending horrific dump. First, she dumps Lane for the captain of the school’s ski team, Roy Stalin. Stalin is a bully who will periodically show up at the worst possible moments to add to Lane’s humiliation. If there is a moment that Lane will end up covered in garbage or falling on his butt or getting fired, Roy and Beth will happen by and Roy will mock him.

Further, once she dumps Lane, everything will remind Lane of this fact, like the radio playing a continuous loop of breakup songs on every channel. Moreover, as Lane moves throughout his day, his teacher will actually ask Lane if Beth is available... as does Barney Rubble of all people.
Because of this, Lane becomes suicidal and he sets out to kill himself. Fortunately for him, he proves to be utterly incompetent at this, as he is in every other aspect of his life, and we see him try various things only to have them fail. Interestingly, whereas Hughes would choose this moment to have someone from the main character’s life come assure them that everything would be all right, Holland goes the other way: each of Lane’s friends and family either ignore his attempts or actively encourage them.

Family is another area of angst for teens. Specifically, you see a lot of teen films about competing with a superior sibling or teens who struggle with having uncool parents who don’t understand them. Holland gives us this in spades. For example, Lane’s little brother can build a spaceship and pick up trashy women. Lane’s mother does insane things (note what she’s cooking in the image below). And Lane’s father sets Lane up with the most hilarious blind date. Again, each character is so far over the top that they become ridiculous.
A lot of teenage angst also comes from a feeling that the teen can’t compete with those around them. Better Off Dead really excels here. Lane is constantly made a fool by two Vietnamese brothers who learned to speak English by watching Howard Cosell and who keep challenging him to races. When Lane finally stands up to Stalin, he hopes to keep the issue quiet. Instead, it gets announced over the school loudspeaker. And how does he stand up to Stalin? By challenging him to a race down the K-12, a ski slope that we are told will kill even professional skiers. Whoops.

The whole film is like this. Everything that happens in Lane’s life is exaggerated. Whereas John Hughes tried to downplay people’s angst and make people realize that it wasn’t as big of a deal as they thought, Lane lives in a world where his insecurities are in fact huge threats to his very existence... bizarre unrealistic threats, which make you laugh. This makes for a strong film which forces you to laugh.
Moreover, the film is packed with memorable characters. His best friend Charles de Mar (Curtis Armstrong) is a drug addict and a freak, who wonders about the street value of all the “snow” on the mountain. His neighbor Ricky is... well, God knows, and Ricky’s mom is the nightmare over-protective mother who has raised an adult infant. Lane’s boss is a vile caricature and humiliates him. The paperboy stalks Lane for $2 (something I can sympathize with being an former paperboy). Each of these characters is strong enough that you could see them as the standalone “interesting character” in a modern film, but here they are all assembled in this one story and they work because Lane’s world is just unreal enough that these people can inhabit it.
This much alone would make Better Off Dead an excellent film, but Savage adds a very strong romance to the film too. In the middle of all of this, Lane meets Monique, the foreign exchange student. She had been brought to the US from France by Ricky’s mother and apparently was brought over as girlfriend material for Ricky. She’s held a virtual prisoner in Ricky’s house and she pretends she can’t speak English so she doesn’t have to talk to them. She sees Lane’s attempts to kill himself and she takes an interest in him. Little by little she decides to build his confidence by helping him overcome his insecurities by challenging each of them head-on. Eventually, she will awaken within him his lost confidence and he will beat Roy on the slopes and then defeat Ricky in a sort of swordfight for Monique.
This is a really effective love story because it goes beyond two characters doing the love at first sight thing. Instead, these two are friends who grow to love each other as they realize that they make each other better people. In effect, they are perfect for each other.

All of this adds up very nicely. The romance is strong and heartwarming. The problems Lane runs into are hilarious. The supporting characters are unique and fascinating to watch. The dialog is perfect and very quotable:
“Two dollars!” “A car is not a toy!” “Sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.” “He keeps putting his testicles all over me.” “Do you mind if I take out Beth?” “This... was your assignment.” “What’s a little boy like you doing with big boy smut like this?” “Everyone will be wearing them.” “You like raisins.” “Didn't ask for a dime.”
The acting is understated for a teen movie, but sells the movie perfectly. Moreover, Holland was smart enough to make the world just unreal enough to be truly funny, but grounded enough to keep us from seeing this film as a parody, and he did that by telling us that we are basically seeing the world through the exaggerated, blown-out-of-proportion world of an angst-ridden teenager.

This is why this film works so wonderfully. And if you’ve never seen this one, then I absolutely recommend that you do. This one is brilliantly funny in a way you just don’t often see and haven’t seen in a long time.

38 comments:

shawn said...

I LOVE this film! Ever since I saw it on HBO back in the 80s I make a point to watch it at least once a year. It's a shame that Holland's follow-up One Crazy Summer wasn't all that great. He could have been the alternate John Hughes instead of being relegated to t.v.

Interesting sidebit that would be a early insight into what a tool Cusak would grow up to be: Holland interview

AndrewPrice said...

shawn, I watch this every year as well. I love it!

Thanks for the link. That really shows what for an ass and a hypocrite Cusack is. It's funny because I really liked him after this film and Say Anything and Gross Pointe Blank (i.e. Lane Myers becomes an assassin). But since that time, he's really turned out to be a genuine turd of a human being, to the point that I don't want to see him on film anymore.

It is too bad that One Crazy Summer wasn't nearly as good. It just feels flat and derivative to me. I wonder now how much is Cusack just dragging things down?

In any event, it is too bad that Holland couldn't have hit more consistently. He has a great sense of humor and it would have been nice to see more of his work hanging around today.

shawn said...

Yeah, I liked a lot of Cusak's early stuff as well, but somewhere in the mid 90's he started to go off the rails. Another of his movies that is worth checking out: The Sure Thing directed by Rob Reiner. Like Better off Dead, it is funny and has a nice love story as well.

ScottDS said...

I joined this particular cult rather late, having seen it for the first time at film school. No, it wasn't part of the curriculum (if only!), it just happened to be on HBO all the time that first month.

I enjoy the hell out of this movie! David Ogden Stiers as Lane's dad is just the right amount of deadpan, Diane Franklin is gorgeous as Monique (she also played one of the princesses in the first Bill & Ted film), and the whole thing just has this cool low-key vibe of a first-time writer/director playing around with ideas in his head.

I love Ricky's entrance at the dance, looking all dramatic and back-lit (in hilarious contrast to his character). And that's E.G. Daily singing at the dance - she played Dottie in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and was the voice of Babe the Pig (in the Babe sequel).

It's a shame Savage Steve Holland is stuck in Disney TV land. And it's also a shame Paramount won't pony up for a Special Edition Blu-Ray will some bells and whistles.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, you forgot, "The once great champ, now, a study in mopp - ish - ness."

Jim said...

Another point of angst is math class scene with all the students hanging on Vincent Schiavelli's every word as the teacher. It reminded me more of college than highschool when everyone is pulling out 3 ring binders and computers to show their homework and all Lane has in his pocket is a gum-stuck piece of paper.

I think for lunch today I'll have "Fraunch" Fries with "Fraunch" dressing and "Fraunch" bread...

Dave Olson said...

You can put me in the "Loved it!" category as well. It's almost a guilty pleasure movie, but unlike something like Hudson Hawk, it's not "so bad it's good", it's just underrated.

djskit said...

As a teen of the 80's I was shocked when my wife introduced this film to me for the first time only a few years ago. Classic! With CLAYMATION! and VAN HALEN! to boot.

Andrew, if you ever want to explore the depths 80's film dreck, please reivew "The Last American Virgin". This film will make you want to kill yourself. It is the nadir of teen movies on so many levels.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Yeah, that's about the time he lost me too. Ironically, I can't even say what it is that lost me, but there just seemed to be this steady stream of nastiness from him.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I have it on DVD, but this is one I will upgrade to BluRay.

Everyone I know who has watched this film really loved it. It's just got something to it that people really love. And what's funny is that like you, they can all list all the scenes they really loved... it's that kind of film. How many other films can you say that about?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I love that. Those brothers are hilarious. "Which is worse? Speaking no English at all or speaking Howard Cosell?" And then Ricky with his, "A car is not a toy." LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, So true! Who hasn't found themselves having under-worked a particular assignment. And I just love the way they relate to the teacher and how Lane is the only one who doesn't get it. The whole scene is hilarious.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Underrated is right. I'm amazed how many people don't know about this film. It's certainly not inaccessible because everyone who watches it seems to really enjoy it. I think it's just a marketing failure ultimately.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, This one flew under the radar, and if any of our readers haven't seen it, they should. Yeah, the claymation is pretty funny. It works... it shouldn't, but it does.

EricP said...

Will never tire of this movie, from multiple times in the whole two weeks it lasted at the local theatre, to continuing to watch at least once a year. Great review, AP, and noted thanks for not bringing us over. You most certainly are not a waste of a perfectly good white boy, and I will be sure to destroy a garage door sometime this weekend in your honor.

Nice mention of Last American Virgin, too, djskit ... also starring Diane Franklin, AKA the tri-fecta queen of 80s teen alterna-comedies (Ms. Ringwald's all well and good, but so conventional).

More useless Hughes crossover trivia: a classroom scene appearance from Cuasck's nerd buddy Cliff from Sixteen Candles.

djskit said...

Eric - she's what got me to thinking about "Virgin". That movie is wrong on so many levels - only one of which are that certain scenes with her come across more as a documentary than a movie plot. It's not a movie scene, but the recording of the sexual expoitation of a young hollywood actress.

Koshcat said...

I love this movie. It come out when I was in high school so my friends and I really connected, especially since my best friend had a '67 Camero. It is one of my favorite movies of all time.

It has been awhile since I last saw "The Last American Virgin". It wasn't a bad film but not an enjoyable one. The biggest problem may be the ending. He spends all that time supporting her and then catches her whoring with an asshole again. I think it was too real because I had had similar experiences in HS and college. Nice girl, treated like crap by guy, spend time talking and supporting (being a good friend), see her date another ass. Today that is called "friend zoned". I don't think it had a name back then.

TJ said...

My husband and I love this movie. I liked One Crazy Summer as well, though not as much as this one.

Another film from the 80's that we just love is Real Genius with Val Kilmer. Perhaps you can do a review of that one some time ;)

wahsatchmo said...

Truly one of the classic Cusack comedies. I always refer to Curtis Armstrong as "Booger" (unfairly) because of his role in Revenge of the Nerds, but he has some of the greatest lines in this movie.

"Lane, I have been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I'm no dummy."

Oh, what the hell. Here.

Cusack is at his deadpan best in this, e.g. writing a check to the daughter of his dad's business partner in lieu of a a date. Plus that Camaro SS. Ooooh. A little repair montage with Howard Jones playing in the background, who can't love that?

I love Gross Point Blank for different reasons, and have grown to dislike Say Anything for some unknown reason. I didn't care about High Fidelity, but I liked 1408. I'm as randomly fickle about Cusack movies as he is about creating coherent thoughts on Twitter.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry folks, busy day. I'm glad to see so much love for this film!

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I never grow tired of this one either. It's just such a great film and all the lines still make me laugh.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I LOVE the Camero. If I ever collected old cars, that is one I would definitely want.

On The Last American Virgin, I haven't actually seen it. From the sound of it, I should.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I like One Crazy Summer a good deal, but it's definitely not as good as this one.

I love Real Genius! I will definitely review that one. :)

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, LOL! Nice link. He definitely has some great lines in this film. The 7 years things is hilarious. And my whole family calls him "Booger" too.

I haven't seen Say Anything since it was in theaters, but I liked it then. I'm not sure what I think about it today. As for his other movies, I have liked some and disliked some. The problem I have with him is that he seems to be a really nasty person and that's been creeping into his films for a while now. Lane Myer was likable, but a lot of his recent characters have been easier to hate than to like.

On 1408, I wanted to like that, but it just felt like there was nothing at all new about it. It felt like a total rip off of other films to me, which is too bad because it was beautifully shot and nicely acted.

EricP said...

I can't understand all the hate/dislike for Last American Virgin. Maybe I related too much to Gary. Maybe a 13-year-old's memories of watching a rated R movie on HBO when spending the night at a friend's house still linger too much. Maybe-- Oh, who am I kidding? I was 13 and it had a lot of T&A, a great collection of hits and not-so-hits from the early 80s, and a quick shot of Ms. Franklin's pubes. Yes, I was that simple (probably still am) ... and I will fight any red-blooded American male who says they're different. ;-)

wahsatchmo, with you to a certain degree on Say Anything souring with age. Still love all things Dobler (and the mighty tunes), but that final act with John Mahoney's storyline just drags everything down with it. Cameron Crowe's first directorial effort, though, so it's ultimately forgivable even if it fell flat with all the momentum of the first two acts.

Regardless, with Class, Sixteen Candles, Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing, Tapeheads, Say Anything, and his bit role in Stand by Me, Cusack was the soundtrack of my middle school through late 20s. Bummer his politics dominate too much of my opinion of him these days, but Hot Tub Time Machine was a better than expected reminder why he used to be an automatic reason for me to see a movie.

ScottDS said...

The only thing I remember about The Last American Virgin, aside from the heartbreaking ending, is the random dick-measuring contest scene. No male nudity (thank God) but it just comes out of nowhere... pardon the expression. It's like, "Hey, it's time for the contest!" :-)

The DVD release in this country from MGM is full-frame and bare-bones but Europe got a packed Special Edition Blu-Ray. Go figure!

EricP said...

With commentary from uber-fan Eli Roth, too. Thank God Blu-Rays are region-free.

ScottDS said...

Eric -

Are they? I'm pretty sure Blu-Rays are region-coded like DVDs (three regions: A, B, and C).

This particular Blu-Ray is "region B" only. My PlayStation3 won't play it.

EricP said...

I stand (or sit as it is) humbly corrected. You'd think someone who works in international subtitling would know better. I am also now sad I won't be hearing Roth's commentary any time soon.

ScottDS said...

This is why I'm pondering buying a region-free player. Arrow Video in the UK is doing some great work. It doesn't bother me when it's a foreign film but when they do better releases of American films, I take umbrage.

Their upcoming Big Trouble in Little China release has more extras than ours does, and rumor has it they're doing a special edition of Joe Dante's The 'burbs, and I don't see Universal rushing to give that film the same love in this country. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, All the 80's films had great soundtracks. I don't hear much in the way of soundtracks today though.

AndrewPrice said...

Just to add, I hate the region thing. It's very annoying.

EricP said...

If only Sixteen Candles would have had a proper soundtrack released.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I'm amazed how often it's difficult to get a good soundtrack. Even the Better Off Dead soundtrack was lacking... though I eventually found most of the missing pieces on Napster back when it was free.

Outlaw13 said...

Quote this move at least once a week.

Count me in on the "Last American Virgin" dislike...I recall it being utterly depressing. If I needed to see a girl's privates I could always count on HBO's Hitchhiker series. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Same here, I quote this film all the time.

Koshcat said...

Probably wasn't even her pubes anyway. Probably just a merkin to avoid the dredded X rating.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Interestingly, you know how the Euros always claim we're prudes and how we don't allow sex on television? There is a show on HBO right now (it's either Tudors or White Queen) and they are actually editing out the sex scenes in the British version, but not the American version. Apparently, we're not so prude after all.

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