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BETTER OFF DEAD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Diane Franklin, Kim Darby, Amanda Wyss
Director:  Savage Steve Holland
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  None
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  July 16, 2002

“I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS!!”

Film ***

I think it was Mel Brooks who once defined the difference between tragedy and comedy as this:  “Tragedy is when I stub my toe.  Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.”  Crude, but inevitably true.  Lane Myer (Cusack) is having one of the worst weeks any teenage kid has ever had to deal with.  Too bad for him…but great for us.

Better Off Dead, which was written and directed by Savage Steve Holland in 1985, remains arguably the teen comedy that most defies categorization.  It boasts the insight of a John Hughes film but not the warmth, it has all the bite of a picture like Heathers but without the harshness.  It’s a collection of comically nightmarish characters and vignettes that are exaggerations of all our worst adolescent memories, pasted together without a wink to let us know it’s okay to laugh.  Yet laugh we must…and do.

When Lane’s girlfriend (Wyss) of six months decides to dump him in favor of the school’s leading jock-jerk, he contemplates suicide.  But he doesn’t have much luck…each attempt only brings him more humiliation and us more laughter.  Teen suicide, of course, isn’t funny, and neither is teen violence, but the sick minds behind this movie and Heathers proved that dark subjects can be wickedly humorous in the right hands.

Though that’s the central storyline, the movie is filled with quirky people and scenarios, each one independently funny.  Lane’s clueless parents, for example, or his younger brother who plays with some incredibly dangerous toys.  There’s the pretty French foreign exchange student (Franklin), who becomes an object of lust for the rotund nerd son of the off-balanced woman she’s staying with.  My two favorites, though, are the Japanese version of Howard Cosell and the demonic paperboy who consistently shows up asking for his money.  On top of that, Holland uses traditional and clay animation at times to convey Lane’s emotional state!

So as you see, Better Off Dead isn’t a film that fits in nicely with its other contemporaries from the 80s, and all the better for it.  Its audience may have been smaller, but consistently more loyal in the decades since.  John Cusack would go on to do bigger and better things, of course, but his long time fans will always remember him fondly for his wild excursions skiing down a ridiculously lethal pick, his street racing attempts that always went awry, and running for his life from maniacal twelve year olds on bicycles.  Not to mention his failed suicide attempts.

Better Off Dead is a shamelessly quirky, arguably uneven, but ultimately hysterical entry in the teen flick genre.  Laughing at a depressed teen’s constant misfortune might be mean…but it sure is fun.

Video **1/2

Like most films from the 80s on DVD, Better Off Dead has some problems.  There is noticeable grain and dinginess with the print right from the start.  Colors, however, come across well, as tones still look largely natural and well-defined by this transfer.  Images range from fairly sharp to slightly soft, with varying levels of definition, but overall, the results are still pleasantly watchable…just not exemplary.

Audio **

The simple stereo mix is serviceable…the picture is mostly driven by dialogue and some fun 80s music.  There’s not a lot of dynamic range, but it isn’t really needed…the clean digital presentation is adequate just as it is.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Better Off Dead doesn’t always get remembered in the same breath as Sixteen Candles or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but for its legion of fans, it remains one of the quintessential teen comedy experiences of its decade.  I’m grateful for the chance to re-visit this delightfully off-kilter comic gem and once again feel the catharsis of laughing at someone else’s misery.  Laughter is the best medicine, after all…if not for Lane, then at least for us.