Monday, October 17, 2011

John Cusack Focus: Better Off Dead Movie Review

Revisiting favorite old films from your childhood can go one of two ways. In most cases you can be fairly certain that it’s not nearly as good, interesting, clever, or funny as you remember. But you can be sure that you’ll either be supremely disappointed to discover there’s little redemption to be found within its frames or that there’s actually a lot more to discover than your innocent and immature brain was capable of comprehending at the time.

Better Off Dead… is one of two bizarre comedies (along with One Crazy Summer) from the mid-80s written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and starring John Cusack. What was Holland thinking? Can you imagine a film being made today whose main character is a depressive teen who tries to kill himself several times over the course of the film’s 90 minutes – and oh yeah, it’s a comedy?

Lane Meyer (Cusack) is a bit obsessed with his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), whose picture is plastered all over every surface of his bedroom. Unfortunately, being high school students, she is shallow while he is a bit callow. She thinks it’s time she starts seeing someone who is more popular, better looking and a better skier. She could be Catherine Zeta-Jones in High Fidelity telling Cusack that the man she left him for was sunnier, more confident and less work. Lane thinks the end of their epic six month relationship is the end of the world and after getting the bad news he strings a rope around his neck in the garage and then second guesses the efficacy of this drastic decision. Then his oblivious mother (Kim Darby) opens the door, bumping him off the edge, dangling and strangling while she continues vacuuming unawares. Lane’s experiences through most of the movie are a variation on that mishap.

There is some hope offered by Monique (Diane Franklin), a French foreign exchange student living across the street with the irrepressibly nauseating Smith family – Ricky (Dan Schneider, best known for his role on the TV series “Head of the Class”), the overweight and nerdy near-mute, and his loud and obnoxious mother. She and Lane become friends after he sharing the secret that she can actually speak perfect English despite her ruse in front of the Smiths. She is also conveniently a whiz at fixing cars, helping Lane to get his Camaro (the one that his despondent father would like to see uncovered and removed from the front lawn) on the road again, boosting his confidence just enough that he might be able to beat Beth’s new boyfriend and death-defying ski race and win her back.

If you can’t tell where Lane should really be focusing his romantic attention, and where it’s likely to end up before the closing credits, then there’s little hope for you. Monique is winning and adorable and the scenes with the Smiths are some of the funniest in the film, but Holland’s screenplay offers little in the way of character development for her. Franklin has nothing to do but stand there looking cute and speak with a put-on French accent until we accept by virtue of convention that she and Lane will wind up together.

But do story details like this really matter in a movie that was obviously designed with surrealism and some black comedy in mind? It’s those elements that have likely led to the film’s enduring reputation as a cult classic. Is there anyone who grew up in the 80s who doesn’t occasionally repeat the dreaded phrase, “I want my two dollars,” echoing the relentless paperboy who breaks the Meyers’ garage door windows and harasses Lane for payment of a debt that actually belongs to his parents? Black humor is peppered throughout the film and sets it apart from most other throwaway entries in the teen romance genre.

One of the pleasures of revisiting a beloved film from childhood is the material that makes sense to your more mature and knowledgeable mind. I’m talking about scenes and jokes that give you that “A-ha!” moment when you see why it was funny to an older sibling, but not to you, 25 years ago, as when Lane remembers being under a blanket in the back his station wagon with Beth and he says, “Uh oh! That thing I put on. It broke. Don’t worry, I’ll get you a new one.” Then his mind returns to the task at hand and instead of solving a math problem on the classroom blackboard he’s drawn a picture of a well-rounded Beth with the word baby and an arrow pointing to her stomach. Or the way Lane’s father (David Ogden Stiers) uses a book on how to relate to teens to pathetically attempt to use the slang of youth. Or how about Lane’s precocious younger brother ordering a book called “How to Pick Up Trashy Women” and then later he’s the VIP of his own bedroom with several tawdry-looking women by his side.

The individual elements don’t quite fit together logically. There’s not quite enough glue to hold the seams in place or to place the film firmly in the annals of cult classic status. Somehow it works, perhaps as little more than a nostalgia piece. Nevertheless, it was worth one final viewing, but I’m unlikely to ever return to it in the future.

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