Better Off Dead I give it 5 stars

This old John Cusack comedy is one of my absolute favorite movies. It’s nominally a teen movie about a guy who’s dumped by his girlfriend for a bullying ski champ and becomes suicidaly depressed. He tries to kill himself repeatedly and fails, only to fall for the French exchange student across the street, who inspires him to win a race against the ski champ.

I say “nominally” because Better Off Dead all but ignores this so-called plot for long stretches. Instead, the minor characters all but take over the movie: a pair of drag-racing brothers who talk like Howard Cosell, a paperboy scarily intent on collecting his two dollars, a top-hatted druggie sidekick, a mother whose food is so bad it walks off the plate, a claymation hamburger … the movie is a gigantic, shambling, glorious mess. The movie does manage to juggle more than the usual number of subplots, but only at the cost of leaving some of them offscreen for half an hour or more.

One interesting undercurrent is that the movie comes off as a vicious indictment of the emotional deadness of suburban life. If the only things that matter in life are hanging on to your girlfriend of six months and making the ski team, perhaps Cusack is better off killing himself. His father can’t speak his language, his little brother doesn’t speak at all. At the Pig Burger, employees wash their hands on their own time, and at the high school, the basketball team communicates only in grunts. At Christmas, everyone puts a TV showing the yule log channel in the fireplace, and wears aardvark-fur jackets (complete with snouted hood). And then the paperboy comes knocking, like the Angel of Death. Perhaps the writer/director, Savage Steve Holland was deliberately drawing on childhood miseries, or maybe this stuff just snuck through subconsciously, or maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is a movie whose villain is named “Roy Stalin,” after all, so the subtlety may be more imagined than real.

In any event, fellow fans should feel free to post your favorite quotes in the comments.

I get Better Off Dead sometimes confused with One Crazy Summer (the other best movie ever made). I’m pretty sure this one has “Do you have Christmas in France? KRISS-MUSS”

One Crazy Summer was my favorite movie for much of my childhood, and I didn’t realize until much later (1996) that Savage Steve had made a second film with Cusack. I haven’t seen OCS in a while, but I really, really like Better off Dead.

Watching the double-feature of Better Off Dead and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (neither of which I had seen, and which seem to share about 30% of their cast — or at least Vincent Schiavelli, who made nothing else matter) was one of the seminal film-viewing experiences of my young adult life. This happened at Microsoft, and I think you were there…

“It’s a damn shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that.”

I believe that quote along with the more popular, “I’ll have what she’s having” are two of the best movie quotations uttered by parts with only one line. Can you think of others?

Better Off Dead. What a classic movie!