I admit, before I went to see Better Off Dead, I was thinking…
…Ok, watch this teen movie made when I was 12, it’ll probably be kind of sappy like Say Anything with some humor.
I didn’t see this movie when it came out in 1985, but I had seen Say Anything, and I liked John Cusack in that movie. So I was interested to see him in this movie.
But this movie was better than I expected, and was like nothing I expected from an 80s teen movie! This movie had a lot of the typical elements you would expect to see from this genre, such as the out of touch parents, a school dance, some very shallow teens, the main character wanting to die for various reasons. However, it’s as if director Savage Steve Holland wanted to make a satire on this type of movie, making fun of itself.
The basic plot is a simple story that’s been done before; in Better Off Dead our hero, Lane, loses the love of his life, tries to think of ways to get her back (which fail), and at the end accomplishes something so nearly impossible that his former love as well as the whole town thinks he’s the best man in history. Holland takes this rather simple and often used story line to create a movie that is memorable and brilliantly hysterical.
Lane is obsessed with his girlfriend Beth. Holland soon makes this comedic by showing us not only Lane’s bedroom wallpapered with photos of Beth on nearly every square inch of wall space, but soon thereafter we see Lane’s closet. Every single hanger has Beth’s face! You would think that Lane had been dating Beth for years; we learn however that it’s only been 6 months. Wait, what? Just 6 months? And he wants to kill himself over a girl who dumps him for the snobbish captain of the ski team who drives a nicer car? And wait – captain of the Ski Team? So many sarcastic elements right there! I know that to a teen, dating for longer than a few days is a long time, but this just shows how silly we can be at times. Thinking it’s the end of the world when in the grand scheme of life it’s just 6 months.
There are many running gags in this movie that add to the idea that seemingly bad things in life can be funny, ironic, and helpful. Who can forget Mr. Kerber (played by Vincent Schiavelli) as the Geometry teacher? A classroom of teens actually excited to learn math from a very nerdy teacher who gets his lame jokes and laughs!? Then there’s the two brothers who drag race Lane. They always beat him until the end. I loved how one spoke like Howard Cosell because he learned English from Wide World of Sports! Lane’s parents have a few running gags that greatly add to the comedy, from the mom’s experimenting with new recipes that move on their own to the dad’s trying to make sense of his family, and in the meantime trying to repair that garage door.
The joke I liked best involved Lane with Mr. Kerber, the mailman, and Barney Rubble. Yes, that’s right, you read that correctly, Barney Rubble from the Flintstones. After another successful class, Mr. Kerber asks Lane to stay a moment. We all think that Lane is in trouble for obviously not doing his homework. But the teacher, in a serious tone of voice, says, “I’ve heard about you and Beth, … and I was wondering, can I ask her out….”. After seeing the teacher later drive off in his nice convertible with Beth, the mailman asks Lane the same question, and later on even Barney, from the tv screen, asks Lane if he can date Beth! It was unexpected, and I actually laughed out loud in the theater!
Cusack also does an excellent job in portraying a teen who wants to kill himself but really wants to live. From the first attempt by hanging himself in the garage to throwing himself off the bridge to gassing himself with car fumes, we see that when it’s about to happen he doesn’t want to go through with it. But, this being a comedy, something ironic happens. For instance, Charlie happens to come by while Lane’s on the bridge, convinces him not to jump, pats Lane on the back and Lane plunges head first into the river. His many suicide attempts is another running gag that is necessary, not only for the title of the movie but for what I consider to be the main theme of the story.
But the overarching event that I didn’t expect to tie everything together was the paperboy. He was a menace for Lane’s dad, breaking all the glass windows in the garage door. He was especially a terror for Lane, demanding his $2 for the papers. I particularly liked the scene where out of nowhere there was a whole gang of preteen boys on bikes demanding payment of $2. What I wasn’t expecting was how helpful the paperboy was at the end of the movie.
The last part I want to bring up is the romance aspect of the movie. Our hero, Lane, is so obsessed with Beth he is oblivious to the girl right there in front of him the whole time, the French foreign exchange student Monique, who has the misfortune to be boarding with the Smiths across the street. Now Beth is a cute though shallow girl, and we can see why Lane likes her. But Monique! She’s smart, as cute as Beth, likes baseball, and knows how to fix a 1967 Camaro. Of course that is all a bit far-fetched, but so are a lot of the events in this movie. Finally, Lane notices Monique, and it’s great when at the end he has the courage to disappoint Mrs. Smith (or Mother) and fights Ricky Smith with ski poles to rescue the girl.
I believe that through this movie Holland makes the point that life has its ups and downs, but instead of getting upset over every single thing that goes wrong, take a step back for a moment and see that in the long run it makes us better. The director took things that are serious (especially for teens) and shows that yes life looks bad. Your girl leaves you for someone else, you have a crappy car, homework is left undone, your best friend is a weirdo, your parents are dweebs, and your little brother scores trashy women. However, if you wait a little while, open your eyes and see who your true friends are, life can turn around just as quickly as it fell apart in the first place. And be hilarious at the same time!