Movie: Better Off Dead
by Jeff Frost and Alan Siegel
Hatchet Arts Reporters
Long Story Short:
As if life in the ’80s wasn’t bad enough, it just got worse for sensitive guy Lane Meyer (John Cusack). The love of his life just dumped him for a jock. On top of that, he has a drug addict best friend, a relentless paper boy, and the only girl who’ll even look his way speaks only French. Even a Roth-era Van Halen can’t prevent Lane from wanting to end it all.
The ’80s produced a huge amount of great comedies. National Lampoon’s Vacation, Caddyshack and The Naked Gun, just to name a few. And Better Off Dead (Warner Brothers) is on the same level of any of those classic comedies. The only real star in the movie is Cusack as a high school guy whose life as he knows it is over. Lane Meyer (Cusack) constantly wonders if his life has a purpose any more. This sounds like a depressing subject, but, trust me, this is not a movie to be taken seriously.
Better off Dead is made up of one zany episode after another. What makes the movie so funny is that the characters are drawn as unabashedly eccentric or crazy. Lane’s mother cooks food that walks across the table. Two Korean guys, who learned English from Howard Cosell, always want to drag race. Lane’s neighbor Ricky, the world’s biggest nerd, snorts nasal spray. And I shouldn’t forget Ricky’s mother, who at one point drinks paint thinner (trust me, it’s funny).
Lane seems to be the only semi-normal person in the flick. And Cusack is great. Watching him interact with each character is what makes Better Off Dead one of the great ’80s comedies.
John Hughes had the market cornered on ’80s teen comedies. He made the best of the best. But writer/director Savage Steve Holland came out swinging. Between this and its virtual sequel, One Crazy Summer (Warner Brothers) which also start Cusack, this man had the knack for heartfelt yet absurd humor that makes this film so memorable. With The Breakfast Club taking the award for best teen drama, this one certainly finishes first for best comedy.
Two things make this movie great. The first is the writing. The jokes are comparable to an episode of “The Simpsons.” Some are quick and just plain wacky, while others poke fun at the absurdity of daily life in America (watch for the interaction between the father and the paperboy). And at the core of it all is this layer of heartfelt nostalgia and the bittersweet memories of high school.
There is not one character in this flick, aside from maybe the villain, who isn’t totally original or memorable. It’s the side characters, like Lane Meyer’s little brother Badger, the paperboy, the Korean racers and even the guy with the hedge-clippers that make this movie so funny and so unforgettable.
And also, it is not humanly possible to dislike Cusack, ever. He remains one of the finest and most underrated actors of the past two decades.