The 1980s were a golden age for comedy movies, with many famous films such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Caddyshack, and Beverly Hills Cop. One movie that slips through the cracks and is not recognized as a cinematic gem of the 1980s is Better Off Dead, directed by Steve Holland. Better Off Dead was Hollands debut as a feature film director. Released in 1985 with an approximate budget of 3 million dollars, the movie follows the life of high schooler Lane Myer (John Cusack), as he tries, and fails repeatedly, to end his life after his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) dumps him for the school ski team captain, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), as well as dealing with the other issues of high school life. Accompanied by friend and drug addict Charles de Mar (Curtis Armstrong), Lane gets to know foreign exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin), butts head with his parents, played by David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby, and escapes hot pursuit from the persistent paperboy Johnnie (Demian Slade).
Better Off Dead started as a cinematic autobiography of Director Steve Hollands teenage life. Many aspects of the film actually happened to him, including him trying to end his own life after his girlfriend at the time leaves him for the captain of the high school ski team, the incredibly persistent paperboy, and him playing the saxophone. At the time that his girlfriend dumped him in highschool, he tried to hang himself from a waterpipe in his garage and standing on a plastic trash can. When he decided he was being stupid, the trash can broke and he fell, ripping the water pipe out of place, covering the garage in water. Holland recorded other potential silly ways to end it all the would definitely fail ideas in a diary.
The story is just as absurd as the concept of the film in its roots, a comedy about someone failing to commit suicide. The are few scenes that a director can add to a movie that barely help push the plot along without it being a waste, but the scene where Lane is working in the Pig Burgers kitchen is definitely one of them. The concept of bring a hamburger to life like frankenstein isnt a typical concept. Portraying the Hamburger in a claymation style and rocking out to Van Halens Everybody Wants Some completes the scene in a way that could one be done by Steve Holland. One noticeable knock on the movie is for it taking place in a high school, many of extras look to be at least in their mid-twenties.
The films leading star, John Cusack, does a stellar job for the most part in playing a quasi-suicidal teen who is also incredibly lazy and scattered. An accurate representation of many teens regardless of what generation they were a part of. His portrayal of Lane Myer was exactly what Steve Holland was looking for, but it was apparent that Cusack and Holland didnt see eye to eye on the film. According to Steve Holland, despite the film being a fun shoot and the visible comradery between cast and crew,there was trouble once the movie was done being filmed. During the world premier screening, Cusack left the theater only minutes into the film and didnt return. Over the phone the next day with Holland, Cusack said it was the worst thing hed ever seen, and that he no longer trusted Steve as a director. Cusack was still contracted to make another film with Holland, but afterwards, the two never worked together again.
The films rating of PG by the Motion Picture Association of America is debated by many as well for being a gross mislabeling of a film that turns suicide in a joke. The belief is that should the film have been released in the 21st century, the film would have at least a PG-13 rating. Although many question why it wasnt originally been labeled PG-13 since the PG-13 rating had been first implemented the year before the films release.
It became a movie of high expectations after it was promoted by Warner Bros. Pictures and was following a growing number of high quality comedy movies in the years prior. Despite making a profit at the box office, collecting a little more than 10 million dollars, many moviegoers and critics alike saw the film as a disappointment in comparison to the hype and the movies before it. For some, the comedy was to odd for them and they couldnt get fast the films obscurity to appreciate the movie. Others were let down to see that the movie, regardless of whether or not they normally would find it funny or not, were not on the same level as many comedy greats that hit the screens in the years leading up to Better Off Dead.
Personally, it is Better Off Deads quirkiness that draws me back again and again to watch. The are mountains of comedy movies, but there are few if any that match the antics and absurdity that is blended close to perfectly into the movies main plot. As far as comedy movies go, Better Off Dead will fail to attract a broad range of audience members, but the movie has risen in popularity in the years after it left the big screen, and the movie has really established a niche community of dedicated fans. And it is for those dedicated fans, that niche community, that this film has in their eyes become a timeless classic amongst the greats in 1980s comedy movies.