“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that.”
High schooler Lane Meyer (John Cusack) has just been dumped by his cute girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). Lane had became somewhat obsessed with her and now that she’s on the arm of the arrogant, ski bully Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), Lane is on a downward spiral of depression. He doesn’t see too much to live for and he figures he’s probably better off dead!
After some botched suicide attempts, Lane gets some renewed motivation by his drug-taking buddy Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong) who encourages him to successfully ski the deadly K-12 peak to win back Beth. The advice to just ski and if something gets in his way to turn ends up not being that easy. Again failing on the K-12, Lane meets Monique, a French foreign exchange student, who’s suffering in her own hell having to live with Lane’s oddball neighbor Ricky Smith (Dan Schneider) who has got the hots for her.
Ultimately Lane does find his redemption thanks to Monique’s encouragement and realizes maybe Beth isn’t the gal for him, and his true love has been living with the snorting nasal spray Ricky and his mother all along – it just took him awhile to discover it. Add in some bizarre adventures, surreal characters and some very goofy humor and you’ve got Better Off Dead!
At first the story of Better Off Dead might sound like a seemingly routine type of teen tale. And perhaps if the movie stuck to its basic story line and it was directed in more of a standard, straight forward way it might have turned out to be an okay teen movie.
But Better Off Dead was written and directed by the unique talent of Savage Steve Holland, whose offbeat sense of humor, kooky sensibilities and outlandish take on a teen story created one of the most unusual and unique teen comedies of the 1980s. It’s the reason why all these decades later fans continue to quote lines from it and it’s become an oasis of memes.
Receiving TV dinners for Christmas, a threatening paperboy, snorting jello, arguing with animated drawings, a Japanese racing duo speaking in the style of Howard Cosell, a little brother becoming an expert at picking up trashy women, mothers being blown up, aardvark fur coats, a stop-motion hamburger singing Van Halen, a homework-loving class, that classic sad situation of white boys being tossed in the trash and it’s all topped with a skiing race climax!
Better Off Dead is no doubt a strange and surreal comedy, with it’s own brand of humor. Maybe that’s why it went on to attract such a devoted fanbase where fans continue to shout “Two dollars!” at John Cusack to this very day. It’s true! I saw an interview with Cusack saying he’s resorted to blocking fans on social media who message him that quote. I think he’s grown pretty tired of hearing that line.
Better Off Dead seemed destined to be a cult film right from the start. While many kids were obsessively watching John Hughes teen films or the sex antics of teen sex comedies, Better Off Dead was it’s own offbeat animal. I remember my friends and I going to see it when it first came out and all of us loving it. It didn’t seem to have made much of an impression during its theatrical run, but when it began to air on that wide-ranging reach that glorious cable television had during the time, it managed to hook in millions of fans.
You won’t find any ‘normal’ supporting characters or situations or a story, or even scenes that make too much sense in it. It’s almost like a rapid fire Zucker-Abrams-Zucker comedy (like Airplane, Naked Gun or Top Secret!), where you’re not supposed to take anything the least bit seriously, but only laugh at the goofiness of what is going on, how it’s taking place and Holland’s bizarre perspective on it all.
It’s difficult to describe Better Off Dead. On the surface it looks like any other teen comedy, but quickly you realize you’re experiencing it through Hollands surreal lens. Right from the opening scene of the ominous paperboy approaching Lane’s house with his eyes on breaking the last window on his garage with his paper-throwing skills (it’s almost filmed like a tense Hitchcock murder scene), you realize this is going to be an exaggerated, cartoonish teen comedy.
It’s as if Holland took a script for an after school special or standard teen comedy and started writing the most ridiculous, goofy scenarios amongst its structure.
Ok, it’s a story about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend and loses her to the hotshot popular guy in school. He’s depressed and meets a pretty French exchange student who encourages him to build up his confidence and win his girl back. He trains to win a ski race, manages to defeat the popular guy and can get his girl back – however he’s learned he’s fallen for the French girl. Cue the credits and they live happily ever after.
I could see that being the story for some average teen movie. However, in Holland’s hands while that broad outline does occur, but he sweetens it up a bit. He adds strange touches like Barney Rubble mocking the poor dumped Lane through the TV and Ricky’s Mom blowing up from explosive liqueur on Christmas and that famously feared paper boy? All those repeat worthy one-liners that fill the film like, tossing a white boy in the trash – how did he come up with these gags?
I don’t know, but that’s exactly what makes Better Off Dead stand out so much from other 80s teen comedies. It doesn’t have any other aspirations than to be just a fun goofy comedy and how it hits its marks so precisely with such originality might explain its longevity, the longtime fans it has and how THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS later there was that surprising news that Better Off Dead was in the top five films on Apple+, right alongside brand-spanking new films! New younger fans continue to discover it and have repeatedly been enjoying it.
Here’s a small example of the reach the film has had. I finally convinced my girlfriend to watch it with me since she had never seen it. I warned it it’s not a traditional 80s teen comedy and it is kinda weird. So we’re watching it and she’s gradually getting into the tone of it – when that “throwing out a white boy” moment was about to come up. As we saw Cusack sitting in the back of the garbage truck and just before it got to that indelible payoff one-liner, she shouted out the line – even never having seen the film before!
Those one-liners and jokes have made their way into the pop culture lexicon and I guess some folks have no idea where they originated from!
The film is filled with colorful, strange characters. Aside from Monique, Lane’s Dad (David Ogden Stiers) and Roy Stalin, everyone else has a very weird aura about them. They behave strangely, act over-the-top or are just so bizarre you realize this is Holland’s world he’s created that Cusack’s character exists in and doesn’t much resemble any kind of real world reality.
There’s bizarre jokes, strange exchanges and weird running jokes. It would be pointless to go through the film and try to explain what happens. Going to school, sitting in the lunchroom, going to a school dance, Christmas morning, getting a job at the local hamburger joint. It all has a special flavor and unfold in usual ways.
It’s unlikely that ’80s kids could identify much of Better Off Dead with their high school existence.
All the cast is great and the characters and gags all work very well. Everyone seemed to get onboard and knows exactly the tone and how to play their roles in Holland’s teen opus. They’re either exaggerated or stone-faced and deliver just what each gag needs to get the most out of it.
Cusack became something of ‘the everyman’ of 80’s teen stars. He was on the outside fringes of ‘the Brat Pack’ and not one of the more traditional pin-up pretty boys that were the rage at the time. He might not have had the ‘prom king’ looks of Rob Lowe, but he wasn’t as nerdy as Anthony Michael Hall either. Probably most teens felt like they were more like a Cusack-type, than an Emilio Estevez or Judd Nelson. They felt they themselves were a little oddball, but also felt, either right or wrong, that they were surrounded in their lives by some kooky characters.
Cusack was the perfect hero for Holland’s teen opus. He is charming, goofy and funny as the sullen teen. He plays the exaggerated comedy perfectly. From wide eyes and screaming while running from an army of paper boys to deadpan stares. It’s no wonder Better Off Dead is one of the films he’s so well remembered for.
It’s funny, from very early on in his teen films like Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing, Say Anything, Cusack established his screen persona and it carried him through the 80’s and the 90’s. He would grow up and have that same persona in Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. Folks liked seeing him play those quick-witted, emblems of 80s teens to the poster boy of Gen X. He was little bit arty, smart, romantic, offbeat, adorable and funny
I’d love to see Cusack go back to doing smart quirky comedies again. He’s certainly tried to change things up in his career and played other types of roles. Starred in big blockbusters (Con Air, 2012), shiny rom coms (America’s Sweethearts, Serendipity, Must Love Dogs, suspense and horror (Identity, 1408) and offbeat independent films (Being John Malkovich). I thought he was very good as the older Brian Wilson in the bio pic Love & Mercy. He’s still got the chops, although in 2020 he said, “I haven’t really been hot for a long time.”
Now it seems he’s settled into being the lead or one of the recognizable faces used to market disposable cheaper video on demand actioners, that have mostly been ignored by audiences. I guess that’s become the goto arena for a lot of aging stars. Signing up for those, cooling and aging actors are still able to be the star of a film, they get a decent payday, but the films themselves at most will be minor footnotes to the better made and the more popular films they’re remembered for.
While looking up his recent films Cusack has starred in, I wasn’t familiar with any of the titles. Cusack has certainly been busy through the years and there have been a few high points (Love & Mercy being one), but I don’t think any of the VOD films he’s been a part of have been in the top five of downloads or views anywhere.
Cusack no longer resembles that unique offbeat young actor that catapulted him to fame and gained him such a faithful fanbase. But I think he’s so well liked and his earlier films have left such an impression on fans that they would be eager to welcome him back if he were to manage another quality Cusack-type of role and performance.
At least, there’s his younger catalog of films where all those funny quotes still get recited from. Better Off Dead remains one of his best. Luckily, before the film was even released Holland and Cusack reteamed for the comedy One Crazy Summer the following year. It’s very much done in the same style and comedy as Better Off Dead and is practically a spiritual sequel to it. It makes a great companion piece and is another very entertaining comedy.
Folks are still discovering and repeatedly enjoying Better Off Dead. Amazingly, the movie has aged even better and remains funnier than many of the more straight laced, sincere teen comedies from the 80s. Holland did something very right with his first film! I am a big fan of it!
Now give him his two dollars!