Better Off Dead (1985)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #277

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Number of Views: Infinite
Release Date: August 23, 1985
Genre: Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Box office: $10,297,601
Running time: 97 minutes
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Screenplay: Savage Steve Holland
Producers: Gil Friesen, Michael Jaffe, Andrew Meyer
Cinematography: Isidore Mankofsky
Score: Rupert Hine
Studios: A&M Films, CBS Theatrical Films
Distributors: Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures
Stars: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Curtis Armstrong, David Ogden Stiers, Kim Darby, Amanda Wyss, Aaron Dozier, Demian Slade, Scooter Stevens, Yuji Okumoto, Brian Imada, Laura Waterbury, Daniel Schneider, Chuck Mitchell, Vincent Schiavelli, Taylor Negron, Rick Rosenthal, Elizabeth Daily

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Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Rupert Hine “With One Look (The Wildest Dream)”

[2] Howard Jones “Like To Get To Know You Well”

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We’ve all been there. I’m speaking of the pang of rejection; one minute we’re dating the perfect girl or guy, adorning our sleeping quarters with paraphernalia of our significant others, and spending hours upon hours daydreaming of the time when we settle down and erect our white picket fences and, the next, our heart is callously ripped from its cavity and kicked around the entire school like a hacky sack. Nothing smarts more than the realization that we will never see our happy ending, other than the notion that within a day they will be dating someone a little higher on the social ladder and seemingly relishing our perpetual agony. For a pubescent teen still learning life’s less than honorable intentions there is no fate more harsh. Indeed, it can feel as though life simply isn’t worth its continuation, for a while at least.

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“Truly a sight to behold. A man beaten. The once great champ, now, a study in moppishness. No longer the victory hungry stallion we’ve raced so many times before, but a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion”

Ask Savage Steve Holland, he endured the exact fate in high school and decided what better way to work through your heartbreak than to document your emotional turmoil? Better Off Dead is a largely autobiographical portrayal of said anguish and he even went as far as to attempt suicide, fashioning a noose from an extension cord with the intention of ending his suffering. His film bombed at the box office and received a damning indictment from critics almost unanimously, with his leading man John Cusack publicly slating it and accusing Holland of trickery. He considered it to make a mockery of him and only worked with Holland again on his next film One Crazy Summer through contractual obligation. I would hope time has been the great healer as the film enjoyed something of a resurrection on VHS and cable and is now one of the most fondly remembered movies of the entire epoch.

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This revelation hit Holland hard and, after making the amiable How I Got Into College in 1989, he vaporized into obscurity like feeble flatulence. Meanwhile, despite his accusations, Cusack’s career went from strength-to-strength and he effortlessly made the transition from teen prospect to adult star while Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald shared a cup of sorrow. I would hope that age has softened him as this didn’t harm his credentials one bit. I loved Say Anything and The Sure Thing a great deal but it was Better Off Dead that turned me into a fully-fledged Cusack enthusiast. The reason for this is simple; it touched a raw nerve and taught me that the flinch was necessary while convincing me that things were bound to get better once the initial wound had closed.

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It tells the tale of Lane Meyer (Cusack), a typical nondescript teen who is so enamored with his high school sweetheart Beth (Wyss) that he converts his bedroom into a shrine in her honor. In addition, he spends most of his time residing on cloud nine doodling in his sketchbook while the world, and his adolescence, passes him by. When the object of his unhealthy infatuation decides that she has outgrown him and hooks up with a more suitable beau, he is utterly demoralized and begins imagining numerous ways in which to call time on his existence. These range from the aforementioned hanging to hurling himself off a bridge and into a passing garbage truck. Everything serves as a reminder of how his idyllic life transformed into a waking nightmare.

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To make matters worse, Lane’s family appear to be cut from an altogether different cloth and he can’t shake the feeling that he is the black sheep. His little brother Badger is, quite literally, from another planet and his woefully uncool parents fail in every excruciating attempt to ‘get him’. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he is constantly stalked by newspaper-flinging hellion Johnny Gasparini who repeatedly insists he pay him back his “two dollars”. Thankfully, all is not lost, and his dedicated sidekick Charles De Mar rallies the troops as Meyer endeavors to win his girlfriend back from the clutches of date raping ski-instructor Roy Stalin by skiing the infamous K-12. This provides the one hope of redemption and the light at the end of his long, dark tunnel.

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“This is pure snow! It’s everywhere! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?”

Where do I start praising this movie? I guess as good a place as any would be his drug-addled co-conspirator played by the wondrous Curtis Armstrong (Moonlighting, Revenge of The Nerds). De Mar is the stuff of legends, food of the Gods, the Robin to Lane’s Batman and quite possibly the oldest scholar ever to walk the halls of high school. There’s a method to his madness, habitual flunking has enabled him never to grow up and given him an annual crack at reinvention which he still hasn’t got the hang of almost ten years later. Armstrong provides both the back and funny bone to the whole movie and has more classic lines than his septum can guard against. We are talking vintage gold, the stuff of folklore, words of no great wisdom which still echo in my head on a bi-daily basis thirty years down the line.

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“I got the recipe from a magazine. The mail got wet in the rain, so some of the pages ran together, but what I couldn’t read I just… improvised with my own little… creative ideas. It’s got raisins in it. You like raisins”

Next is is Lane’s parental unit played by David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby. His mother and father are completely out of whack from the rest of humanity, Al driven to eternal distraction by his wife’s heinous home cooking recipes and Jenny coming across like a base-level Stepford Wife and completely oblivious to her son’s torment and the fact that her raisin-infused dishes resemble something from The Blob and vacate the plate no sooner than the first dollop drops. Both are priceless, in particular, Darby who has her fair share of vintage moments, none more so than the instance where Lane decides it is all meaningless and strings himself up in the garage. I can’t even write about the scene in question without a bloated appendicitis developing and threatening to explode.

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“I have great fear of tools. I once made a birdhouse in woodshop and the fair housing committee condemned it”

Cusack made a whole lot of fuss over nothing if you ask me. He is perfectly cast as the suicidal Meyer and it is hard to imagine any other actor on the circuit suiting his character more hand-in-glove. In his disavowal he accused Holland of turning him into a laughing stock where that was what made him appeal in the first place. While others were clutching onto brat pack status for dear life, he shunned the lifestyle in favor of remaining true to himself. He does that here and Holland’s self-effacing approach to screenwriting is the perfect match for his considerable talent. We are willing him on while rejoicing in his numerous pratfalls and that is because we identify with so much of what his character is going through. That is to Cusack’s credit, even Har Mar Superstar agrees, citing Better Off Dead as his all-time darling movie. It’s not far from being mine either.


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“I think all you need is a small taste of success, and you will find it suits you”

The real treasure lies in a certain French exchange student by the name of Monique Junet. Diane Franklin (Amityville II, TerrorVision) rose to stardom in the eighties before becoming disillusioned by the industry and filmmakers’ insistence that she shed her clothes for her art. There are precious few others who evoked the feeling of adoration she did, teenage loins tweaked in unison every single time she batted her eyelashes and I fell headlong for her the first time I laid eyes on her. As Monique she gives a wonderfully whimsical turn and the steadily strengthening bond between the pair provides the beating heart to Better Off Dead. This is where Holland’s film cements itself in our psyche, at its core it is a love story, despite being utterly ridiculous for the most part.

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I can’t ever regard it as the perfect movie, in that respect, my head rules my heart. Some of the jokes fall flat and it won’t appeal to everyone as it often teeters perilously over outright spoof. However, there are few pieces so refreshingly honest, so able to laugh at themselves and not culpable of taking themselves too seriously. Throw in a truly evocative soundtrack showcasing the talents of Rupert Hine and Howard Jones among others and a glorious animated title sequence the likes of which became commonplace in the eighties, and you have yourself a keeper. My one wish is that one day this appraisal will find itself in Holland’s hands so he can realize just how much his quirky little exposé on teenage angst resonates even now.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

better_off_dead_review (18)better_off_dead_review (19)BETTER OFF DEAD, John Cusack, 1985 Original Filename: MSDBEOF_EC027_H.JPG better_off_dead_review (15) better_off_dead_review (9) better_off_dead_review (4) better_off_dead_review (10) better_off_dead_review (3) better_off_dead_review (1) better_off_dead_review (2) better_off_dead_review (1) MBDBEOF EC106

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