Better Off Dead

April 7, 2011

Better Off Dead is possibly the oddest entry in the endless cycle of high school coming-of-age movies; it takes a cartoonish approach that travels somewhere between Airplane! and Mad magazine to score its comedic points.

And comedic points are the sole objective here; the film has no ambitions toward including a tender or thoughtful or even realistic side. It seeks goofiness to the extent of frequent surrealism, and this strategy has some amusing payoffs. The side effect, however, is almost complete lack of involvement with the characters, which means that the energetic gags eventually become meaningless and a little tiresome.

An introduction to the hero’s family might give an idea of the flavor of the film. Dad (David Ogden Stiers) does futile battle with the paper boy, a demonic figure who smashes the windows of the garage with his well-aimed newspaper tosses. Mom (Kim Darby), a cooking enthusiast, counts among her specialties a raisin-laden slime that develops a life of its own, as well as a delicacy consisting of octopus tentacles. Little brother builds laser devices and somehow entices sleazy women to pajama parties in his bedroom.

Within this family, the protagonist (John Cusack) is relatively normal—although he is a bit obsessed with his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss). Photographs of her cover his walls, and when she dumps him for the captain of the ski team, he toys with various methods of suicide as a means toward ending his suffering.

What he doesn’t know is that his salvation lies in the foreign exchange student (Diane Franklin) who just moved into the neighbors’ house next door. She has to endure her hosts, an insanely grotesque woman and her mountainous son, but she has her eye on Cusack.

The movie kills time until the happy ending by throwing all kinds of weird detail at you. Barney Rubble of The Flintstones turns to Cusack during a telecast and states speaking to him. An ill-fated job at a hamburger joint ends after Cusack fantasizes himself as a Dr. Frankenstein, giving life to little mounds of ground chuck. Christmas is marked by the traditional giving of the TV dinners and dressing up in aardvark outfits (“Everyone’s going to be wearing these,” explains the mother).

These things spring from the mind of Savage Steve Holland, who wrote and directed Better Off Dead. Many of his ideas, while bizarre, have a certain structure to them, and he does know how to exploit a running gag.

But the overall concept of the movie is so foolish, you can’t do much more than sit back and say, “Well, yes, that’s amusing,” without getting much drawn into the proceedings. Holland gives us no reason to care about any of this and I, for one, didn’t.

First published in the Herald, October 1985

And yet it has a huge cult following, thanks to the HBO. Cusack and Holland did another one a year later, One Crazy Summer, and then SSH went into television, where he has thrived. (When I find my review of One Crazy Summer I’ll get into my problem with naming characters after Steely Dan references—Hoops McCann, in that case.) The movie has spawned some catch-phrases, which I suppose counts for something, and it does have echt-Eighties sidekick Curtis Armstrong in it, which I neglected to mention in my review. But he’s in the photo above.