When Lane (John Cusack) is dumped by his beloved girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) for the jockish jerk Roy (Aaron Dozier), he begins to wonder if life is even worth living anymore. His suicidal tendencies are engulfed by an eccentric family, a persistent paperboy, and the pretty, French foreign exchange student living across the street.
I saw Better Off Dead eons ago, but I couldn’t remember much about it beyond the paperboy’s quotable, “I want my two dollars!” So because it’s sort of a Christmas movie (in that about ten minutes of the movie takes place at Christmas), I decided to give it a rewatch over the holidays.
I had honestly forgotten what a bizarre movie this was. From the very opening scene where we get a shot of Lane’s bedroom, literally covered in nothing but photos of his girlfriend Beth, to the horrible meals that Lane’s mother cooks, continually getting worse until the concoctions come to life to slide off of the dinner plates to freedom.
Better Off Dead is a mish-mash of oddities, but it still has some pretty humorous moments. Kim Darby and David Odgen Stiers are delightful as Lane’s quirky, oblivious mother and straight-laced, exasperated father. Scooter Stevens plays Lane’s little brother, Badger. He has no lines, but none are really needed as Badger turns a play laser gun into the real thing, succeeds in picking up “trashy women” after reading a how-to book, and somehow builds a rocket in his bedroom.
Like Lane’s mother’s cooking, the recurring gags continue to get more and more absurd, but it felt like director Steve Holland was taking us into the mind and imagination of a teenage boy, so I was willing to buy into the silliness. Eventually, Lane does meet Monique (Diane Franklin), the French student across the street. Unfortunately, with Monique comes the creepy pair of Mrs. Smith and her son Ricky (Dan Schneider), who are hosting Monique in their house. They become increasingly controlling and possessive of Monique and instead of being funny, it’s like watching an abusive relationship blossom in the midst of other humorous moments.
John Cusack gives a really funny, charming performance as Lane, but I didn’t really feel much chemistry between him and Beth or even Monique. I actually preferred his scenes with his family, his best friend Charles or Johnny, the young paperboy out for blood… or just his two-dollar payment. Maybe I would have felt differently if Lane had met Monique earlier in the movie, giving them more time to connect and build something I could invest myself in.
Lane’s thwarted suicide attempts shouldn’t be as humorous as they are, but they provide some of the most amusing parts of the movie. For instance, after Lane decides not to jump off a bridge, his best friend slaps him on his back happily and Lane falls anyway… into the back of a garbage truck. Two black men fixing power lines see Lane sitting forlornly among the trash and one comments: “Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that.”
I attended a Q&A with John Cusack last year after a viewing of Say Anything, and a handful of people did ask him questions about Better Off Dead. He remained as diplomatic as he could about the film, given it’s well documented how he did not enjoy it. I remember Cusack told one woman that if the film made people happy, then he was happy. But please, if you attend any screening and Q&A’s with Cusack, don’t ask him to quote this movie.
Better Off Dead is a strange movie. Part coming of age teen comedy, part rom-com and part parody, I couldn’t really figure out what this movie wanted to be, and I’m not sure it knew either. But that’s okay. There’s enough offbeat humor to keep it afloat.