Better Off Dead...
*** Image B- Sound C-
starring John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Diane Franklin, Kim Darby
written and directed by Savage Steve Holland
by Jefferson Robbins Better Off Dead... probably wouldn't have outlasted its peers among cheaply-made '80s teen comedies minus three crucial factors. There's John Cusack's extraordinary Everyguy deadpan: He reacts to absurdity without visibly reacting, a still pivot for the scene around him and the best possible audience surrogate for a vehicle like this. There's writer-director Savage Steve Holland's visual wit, rooted in classic cartoons and well-abetted by editor Alan Balsam (Revenge of the Nerds). And finally, there's Holland's clearly-demonstrated understanding of what it's like to be a teenage male--collapsing in the face of spurned love, so immersed in one's own fantasies and neuroses that everyone, even relatives and close friends, seems a grotesque. This internal state gets externalized in Better Off Dead..., as no matter where Cusack's Lane Meyer goes, he's confronted with such bizarre contortions of humanity that he might as well be an astronaut among aliens.
One impeccably-cut scene, in particular, nails all three elements. At the dinner table, Lane's disturbingly domestic mom (Kim Darby, who seems ever on the verge of snapping) dishes up blue-green raisin glop while his dad (David Ogden Stiers, the film's other reactive straight man) imparts a lecture on setting goals and being responsible. Neither of these people can understand Lane, freshly dumped by girl-of-his-dreams Beth (Amanda Wyss) for the bluntly-named captain of the skiing team, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier, endearingly smarmy). In the context of the film, sunk in recurrent fantasies of suicide that he occasionally tries to act on, Lane is still the only normal one at this table. The exclamation mark comes as Lane's serving of mutant casserole attains sentience and crawls off his plate. Cusack's sole response is to fumble his fork and excuse himself.
We never believe Lane's going to succeed in the stabs at self-destruction that give the film its title--not when there's the promise of French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) across the street. (Significantly, the one person capable of resuscitating Lane's self-esteem is a foreigner who's parachuted in from a different reality. She's a total stranger to this universe where Lane is merely estranged, and so she has constructive ideas for navigating it.) These attempts are so absurd and unremarked-upon by observers, we start to believe they're taking place entirely in his head, like Ralphie's fantasy of soap-induced blindness in A Christmas Story. It's more likely that the hostile world will do him in first, as in a beautiful nighttime attack of a Paperboy Legion of Doom, bent on collecting the "Two dollars!" owed to malevolent Johnny Gasparini (Demian Slade). The recurrent suicide gags--in which Lane tiptoes to the edge of killing himself, changes his mind, and then hits some snafu that nearly does the job for him--may be part of what's kept the film in cult memory. Almost as soon as Better Off Dead... was released, it was out of bounds: with one in 775 young people in the U.S. having killed themselves the year before, the media reaction from the mid-1980s on was such that the epidemic wasn't fit for parody until Heathers appeared in 1988.
Better Off Dead... was prescient in other ways, too. It might not have been a smash on release, but Holland's visual signatures injected notable DNA into the currents of film and TV comedy. In my estimation, the movie contributed to the template of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" and a slate of similar shows. Some of Holland's approach appears to have rubbed off on Dan Schneider (cast here as nerd/nemesis Ricky Smith), who went on to become the production impresario of tweener TV comedies including "All That", "Drake & Josh", and "iCarly." (Holland has directed many episodes of Schneider's series and continues to work steadily for Disney and Nickelodeon.) Al Meyer's terror dream of Johnny approaching on his bicycle might be said to prefigure H.I. McDunnough's nightmare of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, two years later, in Raising Arizona. There's also a thread of Holland in the Happy Madison oeuvre, for good or ill but mostly the latter. You can't say he was ahead of his time, or even particularly gifted at mise-en-scéne--too many locked-down camera shots, too much flat lighting, some damned ugly colour choices in his palette. But Holland's humour digs in and hangs on.
It wasn't a school of comedy Cusack wanted to attend, though. He reportedly turned on Holland while the two were making their 1986 follow-up, One Crazy Summer, and sought to reinvent himself in the public eye as a hardcore dramatic actor with The Grifters. As Masha Tupitsyn put it in her stellar essay for PRESS PLAY, "Cusack wanted to slay his lovable image--specifically Lloyd Dobler [of Say Anything...]--with Roy Dillon." Nowhere does she mention Lane Meyer, however, which may indicate how thoroughly Cusack has erased one of his breakthrough roles (alongside The Sure Thing, also from 1985) from public memory.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Cusack's unlikely participation is probably the only thing that could win Better Off Dead... the sort of Blu-ray release that really acknowledges and explores its legacy. No dice; instead, CBS smuggles the film to BD via Paramount in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation that compromises its projected aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and does away with the title's onscreen ellipsis (Better Off Dead...) in cover copy. What was it with '80s Cusack and ellipses, anyway? Maybe that's what he was running from. There's no commentary here and there are no special features beyond the original trailer (bumped up to 1080p), which is indifferently cut and narrated in the way that trailers for '80s movies so often are.
The default 5.1 remix, offered in DTS-HD MA, is kind of undiscriminating, seldom employed to any real effect, and always prioritizes F/X and music over dialogue. While there's an optional DD 2.0 track that alleviates these problems a bit, they may be a legacy of the original audio. The HiDef image is sourced from an okay print, but flecks and scratches are evident, blacks swallow up a lot of texture, colours are borderline oversaturated, and there's a fair amount of jittery grain. The transfer is badly served by the backgrounds used for shooting--the sickly putty interior of the Meyer house is just revolting in HD. The climactic ski race is where Holland's camera crew truly comes to life, an exception to his general choice of static shots--but doesn't it look like Lane is losing most of the time? I guess that's par for the character. Originally published: August 1, 2011.