Monday, December 18, 2023

80's Watch: Better Off Dead (1985)

Watched:  12/15/2023
Format:  Paramount+
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Savage Steve Holland

In so many ways, it's a minor miracle that Better Off Dead (1985) exists at all.  Let alone in the shape in which it was delivered to audiences.  You can easily see how it could have had the edges knocked off and been made into something far less memorable if the studio felt they'd sorted out the teen-movie formula by 1985.

It's probably been 20 years since I last watched the movie, but something got me thinking about the Christmas morning sequence last week, and it turns out it's living on Paramount+ right now, so you can watch it.  It's a quasi-Christmas movie, starting in December, passing through Christmas and into New Year, so the season is right.  

everybody's going to be wearing one of these

Usually I say "you couldn't make this movie now" with anything remotely morbid, but I expect we're hitting a point where the pendulum is about to swing back hard and fast regarding what we can do and put in movies again as we've all stepped away from the pearl-clutchers over on Twitter as that site tire-fires it's way to irrelevance.  We'll see.  I imagine the patience with the bipartisan puritanism is starting to wear a bit thin.

But, yeah, Better Off Dead is a teen comedy about a young gentleman wanting to kill himself because his girlfriend dumped him for a richer, handsomer, more dickish guy.*  Attempts to do so go afoul as our hero (John Cusack) can't even really work himself up to do it properly.  But, really, it paints a near-perfect picture of what it's like to be 17 and just trying to get through your day and how utterly absurd the world can feel at that age (or any age).  

Our lead is comedic - John Cusack in the role that made his career, let's be honest - but for laughs he's nothing compared to literally everyone else on screen.  His dad is trying to be concerned but is hopelessly unable to connect (David Ogden Stiers!) and his mom is... possibly insane?  But harmlessly so.  His brother is cutting coupons off of everything and sending in mail order requests - answering the question - do books about how to pick up trashy women work?  

But, yeah, the movie is full of great characters - everyone in it is a comedic foil.  The Japanese guys who only speak Howard Cosell to the villain named 'Stalin" to Ricky's Mom, who may be the single most quoted character in a movie in my household.  

yup, just this one line

Curtis Armstrong makes a great case for himself here, playing a guy in his 7th year of high school who is just happy to be there, but wishes he knew where to score drugs.  And, of course, Ricky himself.  The math teacher.  Etc... et al.

Diane Franklin was perfect casting for Monique - I  suspect she gets the assignment more than any actual French actor would have, and she totally fits the role.  And her character is really pretty funny/ provides the ideal antidote to the heartbreak Lane's wrestling with.  She's just off-kilter enough herself that she fits well into what could have felt too fantasy-forward.

The situations are also insane.  Math class is everyone's favorite hour.  The paperboy wants his $2.  The mom substituting ingredients in a recipe.  And, of course, one's high-school-era jobs working for adults who absolutely do not give a shit if you live or die while you do work which is both dumb and a bit humiliating (I think Gen-X kind of phased out goofy costumes as part of work attire as they came into management).  But it all feels weirdly real, like how you'd tell a story to your friends, where everyone else is a cartoon.

Jamie paused the movie to ask "so, this is all really from Lane's point of view?" and the answer to that from my POV is:  I think so, but we also understand, Lane is just a stand-in for director Savage Steve Holland relating some funny shit that happened to him as in high school (tragedy + time = comedy).  Holland has a whole history I won't get into here, but which you should check out sometime.  And at this point, I'd half want to see him make a movie about his film career's short shelf life before he moved into kid's TV.

Maybe the most relatable scene (to me) is the Christmas Eve dinner sequence (where Ricky's Mom blows herself up, and we get French Dressing - another oft-quoted item in our house).  As someone who never knew what holiday meals would be like, and who only found out when assigned to set the table who was going to be there, seeing Lane wander into dinner and be caught by surprise by his guests, the menu and just wanting to get through this... chef's kiss.  No notes.

I mean, maybe it's a "me" thing that I need a certain heightened reality to tap into the high school experience or feel that I can relate to it.  Most of the time, the cliches of high school media feel like an alternate reality where rules for how high school work in TV and movies is wildly different from what's happening every day - much as Christmas movies have their own cliches that don't come close to what actual Christmas is like.  But in surrounding the somewhat mundane truths of what it is to be at this juncture in your life, figuring out life and love, navigating other people as you begin to realize no one knows what they're doing, you really do feel like "this is all insane".  Who wouldn't see the paperboy and his relentless pursuit for $2 as an existential threat?  Or wonder who these two people calling themselves your parents even are?  This movie manages to really capture something about the absolute nonsense of what your day-to-day world really looks like, just by turning it up a a bit.

Anyway, explaining a joke sucks, so I'll just stop.  But I was pleased with how well most of the movie held up.  There's definitely one or two things that are products of the 1980s, but most of it still really works.  

Mostly, it makes you a little sad for Savage Steve Holland who made two movies everyone loves, but Hollywood hadn't figured out the longtail success of movies on cable yet, so his work was seen as a bomb instead of something unique and fun enough to be embraced by millions of kids with HBO and minimal supervision.

hey, that book DID work

*Which, hey, if you haven't been there at 17 over someone who isn't thinking about you at all, what were you even doing in high school?  

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