Lane Meyer wishes he were dead. He tries over and over–self-immolation, carbon monoxide poisoning, jumping from a bridge, even hanging–but like most things in his life, it never quite goes his way. Did I mention this is a major plot point in an 80’s teen comedy?
Better Off Dead isn’t just another teen movie that came out in the 1980s, a decade known for its voluminous production of the genre: it’s almost the anti-teen movie. Starring John Cusack as depressed Lane Meyer, whose girlfriend just dumped him and nothing seems to be going his way, Better Off Dead is a surreal and very silly comedy by writer/director Savage Steve Holland, best known these days as a TV director for Disney shows. But back in 1985, this movie–along with another Cusack vehicle, One Crazy Summer–were his debut starring films.
Instead of just grinding out another formula teen romantic comedy like Sixteen Candles or Can’t Buy Me Love, Holland introduced absurdity into his teen flick, where a genius kid brother reads books like “How To Pick Up Trashy Women” and builds a space shuttle; where two Korean drag racers torment our protagonist, driving around in a car with a loudspeaker on top through which one taunts Lane while speaking like Howard Cosell; where a hamburger comes to life and sings Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” and Barney Rubble asks Lane through the TV screen if it’s all right that he calls his ex-girlfriend. In short, it’s all rather nuts.
But that’s what makes it better than the average 80’s teen comedy: instead of lame jokes about nerds, jocks and stoners (although those are also present and a grade above the generic stereotype), we’re treated to Lane’s continually unsuccessful suicide attempts, which are funny instead of disturbing, an obsessed paper boy whose unstoppable quest to get the two dollars he’s owed by the Meyer family becomes an increasingly humorous running gag, and witnessing Lane’s bizarre family as his father fails to connect with his son (mangling basic slang with phrases like “mellow off” and “really bringing me over”) and his mother cooks inedible and possibly sentient food.
The story is basic enough: Lane’s girlfriend dumps him for the snobby captain of the ski team, which sends Lane into a suicidal depression; unable to properly kill himself, instead he begins to focus on beating the ski captain in a competition, hoping this will win his ex back. Meanwhile, French exchange student Monique that lives across the street with the gross Ricky and his overbearing mother begins to get closer to Lane, helping him restore his car and his confidence. But the plot is besides the point in Better Off Dead: the weird comedy bits that the film is coated in are the real attraction.
Listing these bits would be to spoil so much fun of the film: Lane’s best friend Charles is a spaced-out wannabe druggie (played to perfection by 80s comedy stalwart Curtis “Booger from Revenge of the Nerds” Armstrong) who can’t actually get his hands on real drugs so he snorts snow instead, which weirdly enough seems to have an effect on him; the running gags–including inappropriate figures asking Lane if it’d be all right for them to call his ex, the Meyer family garage door continually being destroyed, and his little brother Badger’s (BADGER!) bizarre mail order items, to name a few–that keep popping up; and Lane’s own constant bad luck throughout are just a few examples of the off-the-wall humor that catches the viewer expecting a run-of-the-mill 80s teen film off-guard .
The direction is nothing special, but it doesn’t have to be: comedy films are rarely known for their great cinematography, and the focus is making with the laughs, not creating a Terrence Malick meditation on life and the human spirit. Even the end falls into stereotype, as the last 20 minutes is dedicated to Lane training to beat his ski captain rival in a downhill ski race, complete with Lane winning and getting his ex back but choosing Monique–the girl that was there for him the whole time–over her. Even then, the very end has some subversion, as everyone gets to end up with the right partner, down to his awkward across-the-street neighbor Ricky finding love on the mountain. Oh, and Badger launches into space, too.
Besides the great comedic content of Better Off Dead, the other charm of the film is how it’s set specifically smack-dab in the mid-1980s American zeitgeist: only in a prosperous country whose youth lived in perpetually comfortable suburban conditions could a weird black comedy film aimed at this market have led to a major studio handing millions of dollars over to a 25-year-old aspiring filmmaker to shoot his first movie.
And a movie like this couldn’t–or wouldn’t–be made by a major studio these days. The subject matter alone, of a suicidal teenager who actually tries to commit suicide on-screen several times and is played for laughs wouldn’t get past the first round on the path to greenlighting such a venture, much less the rest of the film–an unproven, previously unseen type of absurd comedy mashed into the teen movie genre.
The film was not a big success when it first came out–indeed, John Cusack initially held a lot of ill will towards the film that seems to have only mellowed out in recent years–but has since gained a cult following who appreciate its more insane approach to an otherwise hackneyed genre. In its home video and syndication life after its initial release, an entire generation grew up watching this movie from rentals and on TV Saturday matinees and began to appreciate its offbeat take on the 80s teen comedy.
Today, it’s a fondly remembered film to certain audiences but still an underseen comedy that’s a few steps ahead of the generic teen movies of its time and overall much more substantial in its comedic return than its contemporary 80s films geared towards the adolescent market. If you haven’t seen it, and you can appreciate 1980’s culture and film, track down a copy and prepare to be pleasantly surprised at how subversively smart and overall amusing Better Off Dead can be.