Written and Directed by: Savage Steve Holland
Starring: John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Diane Franklin, and Kim Darby
Released by: Paramount
Anamorphic: Yes. 16×9 enhanced.
My Advice: Buy it if you were in middle or high school during the film’s theatrical run. Rent it otherwise.
Before the days of Being John Malkovich, John Cusack made his name in Hollywood in exactly one fashion – he was perpetually cast as the vaguely lovable but goofy teenager constantly mooning over any of a variety of girls, and inevitably ending up in love with the right one by accident. He just happened to be one of the few actors to survive the 80s teen movie apocalypse (anybody know where Jon Cryer and Patrick Dempsey left their careers, incidentally?), and the best reason for Cusack’s survivor was his willingness to play the fool for directors like Savage Steve Holland. Better Off Dead marked the first of two such gems, followed the next year by One Crazy Summer.
Not exactly breaking any radically new ground, by any stretch. But what this film does, it does well. And Holland has no qualms about hurling around some truly surreal moments that capture the total sense of displacement and isolation so common in the teenage years, particularly for those that weren’t captains of ski teams or vapid prom queens. In short, this is a high school flick for the rest of us…the ones whose high school experience ranged from mortifying to merely dreadful. And Cusack is perfect in his ability to encapsulate the bad decision-making, awkwardness, silly hang-ups, and all-around blithering idiocy that we all possessed at that stage, making it a miracle any of us survived to adulthood at all.
The film looks good in the transfer, maintaining excellent color and sharpness throughout (though given 80s teen fashion, perhaps muting the colors wouldn’t have been all bad). The performances are solid all the way around, from leads to support (particularly entertaining are Scooter Stevens as Lane’s mad scientist little brother and Yuji Okumoto/Brian Imada as the drag-racing Ree brothers). Unlike a number of similar films from that era (or any era, really), the comedy here doesn’t suffer too badly from age. It might be a little difficult to understand why people are dressed like that, or what precisely they could have been thinking when they went to the hairdresser, but the gags themselves are timeless. ]
Extras are non-existent, which is a shame, as I don’t think Savage Steve is particularly busy these days. As this was his big debut, I’d like to have heard a bit from him about what it took to see this project to fruition. Also would be interesting to hear more about his claims that the film is semi-autobiographical. John Cusack might have been willing to contribute a little discussion, as well, since this film was one of his early steps to stardom. In fairness, the film is almost two decades old, but I’ve seen older films with more secondary information.
So if you remember all too well Flock of Seagulls, parachute pants, and the Hollywood reign of the Brat Pack, this one’s probably a must-have addition to the video library. If you’re a bit too old or too young for that, give it a rental anyway – Better Off Dead is a solid comedy, with at least a few gags that require rubbing a couple of brain cells together (not many, but even a few is more than most comedies today provide).