Lockdown Cinema #4 – Better Off Dead (1985)

Reel DMC
Reel DMC
Lockdown Cinema #4 – Better Off Dead (1985)

The fourth in an ongoing series of film conversations where I track my daughter’s reaction after she’s been introduced to one of my favorite movies.

What’s the movie about?

Devastated by personal loss, and drowning in debt (a full “TWO DOLLARS!”) a young man contemplates ending his own life.  Close friends, foreign exchange students, dancing hamburgers, and the entire state of Northern California must pull together to help him realize his life is worth living.

Why did I pull this particular movie out of the cabinet?

Because it was a staple of my youth – it became one of the first comedies my friends and I would watch repeatedly.  It’s also quite wacky so I was highly curious to see if it would translate to a modern audience (or even hold up for me).  Quite honestly I was worried I was going to be let down…..

What did I think of the movie upon revisiting it?

It’s absurdist comedy gold!  Curtis Armstrong was robbed of a best supporting actor Academy award.

Why do I like it?

Where to start?  A young, charismatic John Cusack portrays Lane Meyer with a deadpan casualness while dealing with an escalating series of insane situations.  After his neighbor’s mother accidentally drinks paint thinner and then lights a cigarette (causing an explosion) the next scene starts with Lane expressing his regrets, “I’m sorry your mom blew up Ricky.”

The film purposefully embraces a surrealist/absurdist tone – Lane’s Mom is a terrible cook whose creations literally crawl of his plate, his eight year old brother builds a space shuttle out of home appliances, and two Asian-Americans only speak English with a Howard Cosell impersonation.  The offbeat tone is required to help you get past the fact you actually see Lane taking steps to kill himself three times – teenage suicide is generally not played for laughs, but somehow with the overall wackiness of the film it works.

And speaking of absurd, there’s this guy:

He takes inspiration from Robert De Niro in Goodfellas

Johnny Gasparini is the angriest paper-boy in the state of Northern California, he’s owed two dollars for his papers and he’s going to get it by any means necessary.  As the film progresses, he threatens Lane with a switchblade-comb, chases him through a park at night, and eventually even pursues him down the dreaded K-12 ski run – it’s ridiculous.  Ask anybody in their mid to late 40’s about Better Off Dead, and I’d say there’s a 75% chance the first thing you’ll hear them say is, “I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS!”

The rest of the cast is also quite fun, David Ogden Stiers is great as Lane’s beleaguered father – all he wants out of life is a functioning garage door and maybe a nice home cooked meal – he gets neither.  Diane Franklin plays a French exchange student who helps Lane get his mojo back, and Chuck Mitchell shows up playing essentially the same character from Porky’s, although this time he’s the owner of a restaurant called “Pig Burgers,”…..the movie is definitely having some meta fun.

Curtis Armstrong crushes it as narcotics enthusiast “Charles De Mar,” Lane’s friend and occasional instructor who provides specialized guidance for navigating the dreaded K-12 ski run, “Go that way, really, really fast.  If something gets in your way, turn!”

Armstrong manages to create an iconic 80’s movie character with only a handful of scenes.  First, his appearance:

80’s comedy royalty

Not everybody can rock a top hat and make it work, but Armstrong makes it feel completely natural.  For a portion of the film he’s also carrying around what appears to be a preserved fetal pig in a jar (which he brings to a math class).  Armstrong is truly hilarious, almost all of his dialogue is quotable:

“I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

“Ah, come on! It’s Christmas Eve! I could be home right now, drinking this MONSTER eggnog my brother makes with lighter fluid.”

 “This is pure snow! It’s everywhere! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?”

What makes Charles De Mar especially fantastic is Armstrong being 28 years old when he filmed this, they weren’t even trying to make him age-appropriate, and ultimately it just adds to the film.

Upon rewatch, what didn’t work for me?

It’s honestly a bit more threadbare than I remember  – some of the intentionally goofy special effects look like a student film.  It also wanders into some of the usual 80’s comedy issues with sexism and stereotypes, but it also features a singing hamburger so I’m going to let it slide.

Anything else I’d like to add?

Cusack originally hated the film.  You can find countless online articles describing Cusack’s initial reaction during the film’s premiere where he yelled at the director, and a bunch of interviews where he avoids discussing the film. Apparently he’s come around a bit more recently, but it still makes me sad to think Cusack couldn’t comprehend the true glory of this film.

Am I still happy I chose this to share with my daughter?

Definitely, this is a good entry into 80’s comedy, and I’m super curious to see how she’ll react to additional films – are they good or am I just blinded by nostalgia?

 So, what did she think?  Checkout the podcast to find out!

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