Better Off Dead (1985)
Dir. Savage Steve Holland
Written by: Savage Steve Holland
Starring: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Amanda Wyss, Curtis Armstrong
It’s probably not surprising, as I did most of my collecting of movies as a teenager, but a good portion of my collection was, at one time, teen movies and teen romantic comedies. I was a devotee of John Hughes, even going so far as proudly displaying a Breakfast Club poster in my bedroom when I was in high school. I think it’s natural when a person is young and still trying to develop their identity to look to the teen archetypes that Hughes often traffics in and feel a kind of kinship. I also think that it’s natural that once one is a bit older they can look back at some of those characters and recognize that they’re fairly empty tropes. This isn’t to disparage Hughes’s output, as he’s made some classic films and I still enjoy watching many of them, but I don’t feel the sort of kinship to any of the young protagonists that I used to. The only Hughes-directed movie that I still own is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, copies of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off having been lost or left behind somewhere along the line. Better Off Dead, however, is the one teen comedy from that era that I can still relate to as an adult, and it’s one of the few of its genre that have remained in my collection. I feel that Better Off Dead is such an essential part of my collection that, upon the initiation of this project, when I discovered that the disc for the movie was missing from the case, I felt that I had to purchase it again on Bluray, just so I could watch it again and write about it.
The film’s plot is fairly generic at its core, but Better Off Dead has a pitch dark and quasi-surreal sense of humor that most other teen films lack. Lane Meyer (Cusack) has two great loves in his life entering senior year of high school, downhill skiing and his girlfriend, Beth (Wyss). Lane loses out on both at the beginning of the film, as Beth cruelly dumps him for the captain of the ski team, Roy (Aaron Dozier), at the ski team tryouts. Seeing his high school social life crumbling, Lane decides that he is probably better off dead, but finds himself hilariously inept, even at suicide. Since he’s unable to off himself, and encouraged by his friend Charles (Armstrong), Lane decides to ski the K-12, a treacherous, possibly even lethal, run, in hopes of winning back Beth’s affections. Predictably, Lane fails miserably at his attempt to conquer the mountain, and his life continues to be a cycle of disappointment and adolescent frustration. That all starts to change when Lane meets Monique (Franklin), a French foreign exchange student who is living with the Meyer’s neighbors. Monique agrees to train Lane to ski the K-12 and the two develop a friendship. The film ends with a climactic race between Roy and Lane, in which Lane finally triumphs over his rival. When he crosses the finish line on one ski, Beth rushes to greet Lane, but he brushes past her, choosing Monique instead.
If you take out the failed suicide attempts, the plot to Better Off Dead reads like a fairly typical teen comedy of its time. It even slots in to a strange subgenre of the teen movie that was popular in the mid-late 1980s that featured skiing and partying as a pretext for hijinks and romance to ensue. However, Savage Steve Holland’s unique comedic sensibilities make this film stand out from others of its era. Better Off Dead was Holland’s first feature, and it is based on an actual breakup that led him to a hilariously botched suicide attempt, a la Lane Meyer. In real life, Holland was able to see the absurdity of his situation as he was sitting under a broken pipe, from which he had tried and failed to hang himself, water cascading onto his head as his mother yelled at him for damaging the pipe. He took that experience and began collecting other humorously bad ways to try to kill yourself, as the concept for Better Off Dead germinated. The end result is a film that is darkly hilarious and that feels emotionally genuine without employing the types of schmaltz that teen films sometimes resort to. The film features memorably absurd side plots and a cast of characters too whacky to truly be real, but just barely so. The film’s unique humor and the perpetually set upon Lane’s struggle to cope in the face of the insanity that surrounds him are the reasons that the film still resonates with me when others of its genre have faded off.
As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I was a big John Cusack fan in high school. High Fidelity and Say Anything were staples in my rotation, but I was unaware of the early Cusack film Better Off Dead until my friend Bill played it for me on VHS when we were probably about 16 years old. The film wasn’t as contemporary or as commercially successful as those others, but it’s the Cusack movie that I’ve watched the most as an adult by far. I was instantly enamored with the movie’s offbeat sense of humor. It was a totally different type of comedy than I was accustomed to at the time and I loved the unrepentant absurdity of the film. Better Off Dead is one of the few comedies that I’ve found to retain its humor despite at least a dozen repeated viewings. The film’s central comedic conceit, that Lane is so unbelievably inept that he cannot even find a way to properly end his own life, is funny, but the side plots and the supporting characters are probably the film’s most memorable comedic elements. Who can forget Lane’s younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), a deviant genius who constructs working lasers and rocket ships and seduces older women, despite never speaking in the film, or Lane’s mother (Kim Darby) who, throughout the film, makes creations from Better Housekeeping magazine recipes that look increasingly less and less edible? These characters, grounded as they are in recognizable reality, but spun out to the limits of plausibility, give the film its unique and memorable tone.
Cusack, himself a teen when the film was shot, is solid as Lane Meyer. The charisma and chops that would help him become one of Hollywood’s most consistent and successful leading men of the last 30 years are on display here. Anyone watching the film as an adult can recognize the world-weariness that Cusack displays as Lane is humorous in its desperation, but to a teenage viewer it can feel relatable and real. Lane’s only beginning to experience life, but he feels he’s already seen its pinnacle. The maudlin, mopey performance that Cusack turns in feels like a template for many of the characters he would portray over the next decade, which isn’t really a criticism. Cusack was better at playing that sort of lovelorn sadsack than anyone else at the time, and Better Off Dead allows him to do so in a film that points a self-reflexive lens on that character and chooses to laugh. Lane may be a precursor to the more iconic Lloyd Dobler who Cusack would later portray in Say Anything, but he’s also a more interesting and realistic character.
Better Off Dead and its follow up, One Crazy Summer, would be the only features that Holland would direct. He has enjoyed a long career directing in television, mostly in children’s programming, with his animated series Eek! The Cat enjoying mainstream success in the mid-1990s. I do wonder if Holland wouldn’t have had a longer career in Hollywood had he not run afoul of John Cusack after they finished working on Better Off Dead. Reportedly, the two had a falling out after Cusack saw the final cut of the film which he felt made him look ridiculous, and the relationship has never been repaired and the film has enjoyed cult-classic status, but it has never garnered the mainstream recognition it deserves. I often find that there seems to be a generational quality to appreciating Better Off Dead. Most people my age or slightly older recognize and appreciate the film’s iconic quotes and characterizations, while I haven’t encountered many people younger than myself who seem familiar with the film. While it is almost universally fondly remembered by those who have seen it, Better Off Dead falls outside the pantheon of classic 1980s teen comedies. Despite that, it is well worth tracking down and checking out if you haven’t seen it.
As I wrote, I felt so compelled to rewatch and write about Better Off Dead that I purchased a new copy of the movie to replace the DVD disc that had somehow gone missing from its case. That hasn’t been the case with every disc that has turned up missing in my collection. Since starting this project, I found out that my copy of American Psycho was missing. I had the case, but no disc in it. I decided that I wasn’t as interested in revisiting and writing about that movie, however, so I decided not to replace it, especially since the case that was on my shelf didn’t correspond with the original copy of the movie that I had bought on DVD in high school. Somehow, I had gotten my original copy switched up with a former roommate’s “Unrated Edition” copy. I don’t know why, but for some reason that made me much less inclined to include American Psycho as a part of this project. I loved the movie 15 years ago, and I still like it a lot. It’s an interesting satire and it features a star-making performance by Christian Bale, but it isn’t included in this project. Here are some films that I have owned in the past that I have since parted ways with that I wish I still owned so I could include them in this project. I will not be repurchasing any of these for inclusion.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
I am one of the few proponents of this film that I know. I was probably just young enough to be taken in by this fairytale. Had I been any older, or had my cynicism been as fully developed as it is now, I likely would have scoffed at the film, but I saw it in the theater and loved it immediately. I bought it on DVD and I watched it a lot. A.I. is so stylish, and even if it doesn’t fulfill on all of its promise, it’s at least interesting as a historical artifact as it’s the last film that Stanley Kubrick ever worked on. He and Spielberg share directing credits on the film, and the blend of their unique visual and narrative styles is fascinating, even if Spielberg’s influence is the dominant mode. I haven’t seen this movie since probably 2005 and I wish I could reevaluate it.
The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather II (1974)
The Godfather and its sequel are obvious classics of American cinema, and they’ll be noticeably absent from my reviews. I first saw The Godfather when I was 12-years-old on a double VHS copy that I borrowed from the library. I watched it three times in the week that I was allowed to keep it. Eventually, when I decided I wanted to more seriously pursue an education and, hopefully, a career in film, I often told people that it was the influence of The Godfather that had led me in that direction. I was obsessed with the movie as a teen to the point that I had memorized large chunks of dialogue from the film and could recite them on command as a sort of pathetic, nerdy party trick. I owned the DVD box set of all three films in high school, but I didn’t take it to college with me and it doesn’t seem to be at my parents’ house anymore. I suspect that my younger sister took over possession of it sometime after I moved out.
The second in Lars von Trier’s still incomplete “Land of Opportunities” trilogy. Manderlay follows up Dogville, and continues with that film’s experimental, spare visual style. It also explores similar themes as the earlier film. I have a love/hate relationship with von Trier, and Manderlay was one of his more difficult films for me to wrap my head around. I first saw it with my friend, Ben, at the Regent Theater when it was released. Shortly after giving a presentation on Dogville in a class in college, I lent my copy of Manderlay to a classmate who hadn’t seen it, and I never saw it again. This is one that I’d really like to write about as I’ll be covering several von Trier films over the next few months.
Say Anything (1989)
I don’t need to watch Say Anything again to be able to remember it perfectly. I watched this movie probably two dozen times while I was in high school. It perfectly intersected my filmic interests as a teen, and would have likely ranked up in my top five or ten movies at that time. I imagine my copy ended up with some girlfriend or another at that time, and that’s ok. It would be fun to go back and watch this movie as an adult, but it isn’t necessary.
Upstream Color (2013)
Shane Carruth is one of my favorite newer filmmakers. Both of his features, Primer and Upstream Color have been favorites of mine, particularly Primer. When I first saw that movie, I watched it three times in one day, and insisted that each of my roommates sit down to experience it with me when they got home from work. Obviously, I was eagerly awaiting Carruth’s follow-up, Upstream Color, which took several years to materialize. I saw the movie twice in the theater and purchased it on Bluray as soon as it was released. It was one of my favorite movies of 2013, and I tried several times to write a short essay about the film, but I never got it right. I still have several pages of screening notes from that time, but I let a friend borrow the movie and he lost it.