It is 1985. Lovable loser Lane Myer (played by an extremely youthful John Cusack, who seemed to spend the entire 1980s playing lovable losers) is dumped by his girlfriend in favour of his high school’s sporting hero, the captain of the ski team. Lane spends most of the movie moping over his loss, ineptly attempting suicide, cooking up harebrained schemes to win his girlfriend back, and gradually coming to realise that the attractive French exchange student across the street might be a better bet.
So far, you might think Better Off Dead is a formulaic 1980s teen romcom, if the suicide theme suggests a little tastelessness (Harold and Maude this ain’t). But you would have reckoned without writer/director Savage Steve Holland. A man who shows more invention in ten minutes than most filmmakers do in ninety, Holland simply treats the romantic plot revolving around straight man Cusack as a hook to hang ideas on. The result is a festival of wackiness that would leave three quarters of an audience with their mouths hanging open. And frequently does, as I know from experience.
Let’s start with the obnoxious ski jock, who glories in the wonderful name of Roy Stalin, thus enabling characters to go around exclaiming “Stalin’s a hero!” Then we take in Lane’s certifiable family, notably a seven-year-old brother who’s building a space shuttle out of household appliances. Then you have the Japanese brothers who show up at intervals challenging Lane to drag race – one speaks no English, the other learned all his English from watching Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports. You have a psychotic paperboy ready to commit GBH to get his hands on the two dollars he’s owed. You have no less than Elizabeth Daily playing the high school dance. You even have a claymation interlude, with Van Halen on soundtrack, replacing the near-compulsory pop video scene of The Breakfast Club et al.
Above all, you have the immortal Curtis Armstrong in a role that even overshadows his turn as Booger in Revenge of the Nerds. A would-be junkie who can’t get his hands on real drugs in his small town, he is reduced to snorting jelly (see pic above) and, on the ski slopes, actual snow. (“Have you any idea what the street value of this mountain is?” he bellows.) Basically, his character hangs out with Cusack, dispensing fantastic one-liners like “I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.” He also, at one point, carries around what appears to be a pickled toad in a jar. Why? As Savage Steve would no doubt say, why not?
You very rarely see a film these days that’s even slightly like Better Off Dead, and more’s the pity. With a man as inventive as Savage Steve at the helm, who cares if it looks a little shoddy or the plot doesn’t make much sense? You just sit back and wait for the next zinger. This is probably why, while John Cusack is now a well-respected indie actor and Curtis Armstrong could, if he wanted, spend the rest of his natural life playing Booger in Revenge of the Nerds sequels, Savage Steve has been little heard of in the last twenty years, apparently being mostly involved in obscure and hard-to-track-down animation projects. Which just goes to show that Hollywood doesn’t reward imagination anything like as much as it should.