Better Off Dead (1985) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for language and mild sexual situations
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Dan Schneider, Curtis Armstrong, Amanda Wyss, Aaron Dozier, David Ogden Stiers, Kim Darby, Scooter Stevens, Laura Waterbury
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Screenplay: Savage Steve Holland
Review published January 21, 2003
Better Off Dead would continue the naturally comedic persona of John Cusack in light romantic comedies. Although not a huge hit at the time of release, it would develop an ever-increasing cult audience, and today, it's generally regarded as a classic 80s teen flick. Unlike his previous notable effort, The Sure Thing, this is a film that's anything but conventional, dishing out a generous helping of crazy sight gags, extremely eccentric characters, and hilariously conceived situations. It's definitely not to everyone's tastes, as it's juvenile to the extreme, but if you have a touch of the mischievous kid in you, it's definitely a wildly infectious good time.
The plot revolves around teenage Lane Myer, who is obsessed with his girlfriend of six months Beth (Wyss, Silverado), to the point where she is literally all he ever thinks about. He is in for a tremendous heartbreak once she dumps him for the ski team champ, Roy (Dozier), even to the point where he contemplates ending it all. Just when his life seems darkest, in walks in Monique (Franklin, Amityville II) the savvy foreign exchange student that breathes optimism into his situation, helping him in his scheme to gain Beth back.
It's an impressive comic splash for writer/director Savage Steve Holland, whose only previous claim to fame was in doing the voice and animations of the Whammy for the popular TV game show, "Press Your Luck". He brings much of that sense of humor and mirthfully dark comedy to Better Off Dead, which toys around with more serious issues without ever losing the light comedic tone. The humor is anything but subtle, with characters and situations that seem to get crazier and crazier as the film progresses. Although disconcerting at first, once you become attuned to the level of comedy, you'll probably find yourself laughing increasingly at how silly it's willing to get to gain a laugh.
As impressive as Holland's ambitious debut is, he tried and failed miserably to recreate the magic in his next two films, One Crazy Summer (also starring Cusack) and How I Got into College. The chemistry just wasn't there anymore. Still, one cult gem is more than most have to their credit.
Better Off Dead belongs in every Cusack-nut's video library, as well as those people who enjoy all things 80s, especially the crazy, inventive comedies like Real Genius and Revenge of the Nerds. Love energetic, off-the-wall comedies? Try it, you'll like it.
©2003 Vince Leo