The 1980s was a rad decade. I mean, totally.
Sure, the fashion and hairstyles were really bad — acid wash jeans, popped-up collars, twist-and-fold pant cuffs, and all those shoes with friendship pins. But the movies, those teenage, angst-ridden films.
John Hughes was owning the box office a year at a time (e.g., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles). National Lampoons made some instant classes (e.g., Animal House, Vacation). And then, there were the actors who became synonymous with the decade, like “The Brat Pack.”
Among the heap at the top of the mountain (on St. Elmo’s Fire) was a relatively unknown actor named and unconventional hero named John Cusack. And one of the movies that catapulted him to the forefront of Hollywood was Better Off Dead.
The movie is chock full of dark humor, juvenile misgivings, and some really odd characters who have since become cult classic culture references (i.e., “Two Dollars!”)
In Better Off Dead, we meet Lane Meyer (Cusack) whose eyes are firmly set on Beth Truss, obvious “Mean Girl” and school starlet. Suddenly, as is the case in high school, Beth dumps him to hook up with the captain of the ski team Roy Stalin. Lane’s heart turns to mush as Beth is tap dancing on it, and that’s when Lane goes through a few comical but bleak attempts at suicide.
His hapless journey takes us through the movie as he tries to win Beth’s heart back and, in the meantime, learns who he is as a person and what he has to offer others.
Dated and Confused
Yes, that is a claymation hamburger playing an Eddie Van Halen guitar from the movie. Lane works at “Pig Burger” where he usually has some delusions of grandure, one of them acting out a scene from Frankenstein’s Monster — hence, we get this clay strat-playing burger.
Looking back on the movie, it doesn’t hold up but the comedy and hijinks sure do. The characters are bat-ess crazy. We meet two Chinese foreign exchange students who learned how to speak English watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports (yes, they are Howard Cosell impersonators). Lane’s best friend is Charles La Mar (played by Curtis Armstrong, who is ‘Booger’ from Revenge of the Nerds). There’s his neighbor Ricky who has an uncomfortable relationship with his mother and their French foreign exchange student Monique Junot (Diane Franklin), whom finally teaches Lane how to be a man with confidence.
In fact, it’s clear he has reached that plateau when he comes rolling out of his garage with the song “Mannish Boy” blaring in the background.
Looking back at the movie, it’s obvious why this is a cult classic movie because you could wring out the ’80s from the thing like a hypersoaked sponge. The endearing part of this movie is that it works best as a reflection of the decade it personifies.
So much nostalgia to sift through, like searching for the tin whistle in the Cracker Jack box. This is a coming-of-age tale of a true ’80s addle-minded kid who wants better for himself but unsure how to get it.
Lane is a tragic hero of sorts. You don’t expect him to win back Beth’s heart by challenging the school bully to a fight, but that’s what he does — skiing to the death. Well, it’s not that climatic, but there is a duel down the slope and hail to the champions.
From evil ne’er-do-well paper boys to face-casted characters, this movie on its surface is preposterous but if you look beneath the doltish humor, Better Off Dead really grows on you, namely if you are a child of the ’80s. Be it Cusack’s boyish charm or the movie’s direction into a goofy downward spiral that our hero finds himself on the right side, Better Off Dead is emblematic of the adored and often misunderstood decade.
And that’s why it’s so underappreciated and better off seen again.
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