Movie Review: Better Off Dead (1985)

Posted: January 28, 2017 in Comedy, Romance


Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is an average teenager with a lot of issues.  His mother Jenny, (Kim Darby ) can’t cook.  His father Al, (David Ogden Stiers ) has issues with the paperboy.  His brother Badger (Scooter Stevens) is sending for weird books through the mail.  He has Korean brothers, Yee Sook Ree (Yuji Okamoto) and Chen Ree (Brian Imada) trying to drag race him, when all he drives is his parents station wagon, and his classic Camaro sits under a sheet, untouched by human hands.  His neighbor Ricky Smith (Dan Schneider) is spending the summer with a pretty exchange student, named Monique, (Diane Franklin) who can’t speak a word of English.  But at least Lane has a girlfriend named Beth (Amanda Wyss) who he obsesses over.

But then Beth breaks up with Lane, she starts going out with ski champ Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier) needless to say, Lane takes the breakup badly.  He tries to commit suicide, albeit half-heartedly.  Lane’s friend, Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong)  advises Lane to ski the K12, the most challenging ski run in the area and to take up the saxophone, both designed win Beth’s heart back. His father wants Lane to date Joanne Greenwald to help dad’s business prospects.  In a fit of anger, Lane challenges Roy to a race down K12.  Lane is a good skier, but is he ready for K12?  And if he does race, will this impress Beth, or win him the affections of another girl, Joanne Greenwald or Monique perhaps?

When I watched this movie 32 years ago, I thought it was better than it actually was.  Now I watch it, and as much as I wanted to slap a classic tag on it, I couldn’t.  The production values are so cheap, the recurring gags recur so many times, hinting at a lack of material, and the plot is so stunningly obvious from the start, that despite my admiration for John Cusack, I just couldn’t label this movie a classic.  I realize now  my fondness for Better Off Dead occurs more from nostalgia than it being a good movie.  And suicide is never funny, and shouldn’t be treated as a joke.

The actors are very familiar.  John Cusack gives a heartfelt performance as a heartbroken teen, but this is familiar territory for him.  He plays similar roles in Say Anything and The Sure Thing, and I think the best of the three is The Sure Thing, but his performance in this is worth watching for sure.  David Ogden Stiers is from MASH of course, and he plays the clueless father with some of the same timing he had in MASH, Amanda Wyss was in Nightmare on Elm Street, and plays Beth to be as unlikeable as possible. Diane Franklin, who was in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure had great chemistry with Cusack and also made the movie worth watching.  Curtis Armstrong is best known to me as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds and essentially plays the same character, a wise guy, who’s been around the block a few times. E.G. Daily, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure even sings a few songs. All this 80’s talent should’ve resulted in a better movie.

I think the fault lies in the direction.  “Savage” Steve Holland is the director’s name and he sure savages his movie.  The movie has no continuity, the scenes seem like a bunch of vignetttes, loosely tied together, and as soon the punch line hits, it’s on to the next scene. The recurring gags grow tiresome after repeated use, and the best part of the film, the animation, is used too sparingly.  To his credit, the music is good, and there is at least one good skiing montage, and the last ski race is filmed well.

Better Off Dead:  Worse than I remember.


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