Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Better off Dead (1985)

8 films to go before I take on the probably useless Total Recall remake this summer. I quite like doing these Birthday Series as there’s always a wide variety of films available. For those unfamiliar with the rules, this is how it works: Pick a film released as close to your date of birth as possible and then watch and review it. Sometimes it turns lucky, sometimes (*cough* Just Pillow Talk *cough*) it’s an exercise in torture. Today’s entry is Savage Steve Holland’s 1985 teen parody Better off Dead (21st August in Australia- I knew there was a use for the country), a film I hadn’t seen since the late 80’s and one that I was thoroughly looking forward to rewatching.

May contain saucy French foreign exchange students and spoilers below.

Poor old John simply hasn’t a clue.

John Hughes bestrode 80’s teen comedy like a colossus. Although they were all to a greater or lesser extent formula films, there’s no doubting the classic status and high regard that many of them still hold today. In the midst of this, Savage Steve decided to take a potshot at him, and turned in a genuinely hilarious parody that frequently veers into the bizarre, but is never less than highly amusing.

Lane Meyers (John Cusack) has problems. The love of his life, Beth (Amanda Wyss) has decided to trade up for Captain of the ski team Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). His parents (David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby) respectively have passed beyond eccentric into the land of bugnuts, particularly with her cooking, and his little brother is a borderline genius who, despite being a child, has more luck with the women than he does. His best friend is a stoner, and he is tormented by two Asian brothers who insist on drag racing him daily. To make matters worse, French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) has moved in next door, and is being lasciviously pursued by his chubby neighbour. The only solution to this? Yup, it’s to kill himself. Either that or to win Beth back by beating Roy in the K12 slalom race. This builds up to a totally and hilariously bizarre film with Lane’s frequent daydreams coming to life in the form of animation and punctuated by an insane paperboy who pursues him with increasing fervour all the while screaming “I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS”.

Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute meals 2 wasn’t up to much.

This film is brilliant. Better off Dead is totally underrated, but genuinely hysterical on more than one occasion. There’s a balance here, and although the characters quirky antics (the mother’s moving cooking being a prime example) could become tiresome, but here it doesn’t, instead we just look forward to the next insane interlude in Lane’s unhappy life. This is the film with an animated burger performing terrible 80’s soft rock  in an imagination montage. Really, it has no right working at all, and it’s a minor miracle that it does.

“Excuse me, maam, I’m a licensed underwear inspector…”

I’ve never heard of Savage Steve Holland before. I did wonder if he was a relative of the latex addicted nutter responsible for the makeup in Re-Animator, but a quick check of IMDB shows me that he’s a “marvelously” creative jack of all trades (including animation), a sort of one-man Monty Python. Watching Better Off Dead actually made me wonder why we haven’t seen more of him- considering that those Meet the Spartans arseholes bash out terrible parodies at a rate of knots and this film frankly destroys them- partially because it is so creative, but mostly because it doesn’t spoof individual scenes, rather it spoofs archetypal scenes and does it, for the most part superbly.

Looking sharp there, Lane.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the script. There are many genuinely funny lines here, and one of my personal favourites is the reason Lane gives the paperboy as to why he can’t give him two dollars:

“My little brother got his arm stuck in the microwave. So my mom had to take him to the hospital… and my grandma dropped acid this morning, and she freaked out, and hijacked a busload of… penguins. So it’s sort of a family crisis.”

Hilarious. There are multiple examples of dialogue like this, and they’re all equally funny. Another great one is the note-perfect parody of teen comedy encapsulated by Beth’s reasons for breaking up with Lane, it’s literally that it’s in her “best interests”. It isn’t actually, because Roy is also a note perfect parody figure: he’s the archetype jock dumbass with a libido equivalent to a Viagra fueled Silvio Berlusconi.

Lane was horrified when he realised that he’d been subconsciously drawing pictures of his best friend’s penis.

The script isn’t by itself the reason for the success of this film. The casting is also spot on- Wyss’ delivery of the dumping line is almost perfect, but the real star here is Cusack. He had had minor appearances in films such as 16 Candles (both girls also appeared in films such as The Last American Virgin and Fast Times at Ridgemount High) so was well suited to the teen role, but he sends himself up brilliantly. His delivery is splendidly dead pan, and he wears a constantly bemused facial expression as he lands himself in disaster after disaster. The look on his face when he accidentally strips the Basketball team’s groupie is  hilarious, as is the abject look of terror as he has to take on the K12.

Def Leppard weren’t sure that the new guitarist would work out.

While this is great fun, it’s not flawless. Some of the extraneous characters I could really have done without, such as the Chinese brothers, and the most amusing minor note, the psychotic paperboy, is used perhaps a bit too sparingly. However, the biggest problem is that it feels very episodic. The film just lurches from scene to scene, and Better off Dead almost feels more like a collected clip show than anything else. This isn’t a minor quibble, as it can be quite disconcerting on more than one occasion. However, if I’m honest, it’s actually one of the dangers of parody, this need to skewer all the targets almost obliges it.

The latest Twilight sequel surprisingly found an audience with pre-teen boys.

Overall, this is a really good film, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m going to give it 3 posing John Hughes’ out of a possible 4. In all honesty, I actually think I like this film far more than most of the 80’s teen filth that it’s taking the piss out of. Cusack in particular is splendid here, and the film is almost worth watching just for him. It’s certainly worth a hell of a lot more than two dollars, anyway.

Next time is something called Oxford Blues that I’ve never even heard of. That’ll go well for me, I’m sure.

Until then,


The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

20 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Better off Dead (1985)”

  1. Hawaiian Organ Donor says :

    No matter how old he gets I’ll always remember John Cusack from this and Say Anything.

  2. Continentalop says :

    animated burger performing terrible 80′s soft rock.

    I’m sorry, but Van Halen rocks!

  3. Continentalop says :

    This movie is so incredibly quotable.

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

    “He put his testicles all over me”
    “His what?”
    “His testicles. Like an octopus.”
    “Tentacles. With an N-T. Big difference.”

    “Sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.”

    And I personally love the Japanese brothers. “Two brothers… One speaks no English, the other learned English from watching “The Wide World of Sports.” So you tell me… Which is better, speaking no English at all, or speaking Howard Cosell?”

    • Jarv says :

      I just think they’re in it too much. The basic joke is really funny, but when the pitch up at the end I was a bit bored of them.

      That mountain line is genius.

  4. tombando says :

    Two Dollars! This one is fun.

  5. tombando says :

    Jarv will prob. HATE Oxford Bloos, it’s the film this one is satirizing.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    (clinging to roof of car) “I want my two dollars… (into car wash)… no, I can’t swim…!”

    I love this film. ‘Better Off Dead’ was my introduction to Cusak, quickly followed by ‘One Crazy Summer’ & ‘The Sure Thing’. Once I’d seen him in ‘BOD’ I was looking around for anything he was in. The useless skiing instructions from the stoner – “Go that way, really fast…” But the paperboy is ace.

    Nice one, Jarv.

  7. Droid says :

    I’ve seen this I think. I don’t remember it at all, apart from it being all over the place. Another one I would need to see again. I like Cusack as a rule, and The Sure Thing is excellent, but Say Anything is awesome. One of my favourite movies.

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