Better Off Dead (1985)

Eighties comedy with a genuinely eccentric streak. Singing hamburgers, anyone?

It’s a teen comedy, and an 80’s teen comedy at that. Think you know where Better Off Dead‘s going? Actually, you’re right – boy (John Cusack) loses girl (Amanda Wyss), boy wants girl back, tries in vain to do so, boy meets other girl (Diane Franklin) in process, boy gets new girl. Simples. But how it gets there is pretty mental. Really, spectacularly bonkers. Yeah, it’s a little broad in places, but the delightfully named Savage Steve Holland’s film debut has a deliriously offbeat demeanour that elevates it above the wave of eighties teen comedies.

I’ve pretty much summarised the story above, though there is a subplot involving Cusack’s Lane Myer (great name, though his Steely Dan-inspired name in Holland’s follow-up One Crazy Summer is even better) trying to master the deadly K-12 ski course in order to show up the new boyfriend of the girl he’s still in love with. Everything else is bonkers randomness – Lane’s little brother is an unheralded genius who is, in plain sight, building a spaceship. He’s already successfully invented a laser gun. Diane Franklin’s French exchange student, who clearly has a thing for Lane, is mortified that her new American family are monstrous, yet in a nice twist, the overweight son, whilst stereotypically monstrous in terms of his eating habits, is an unquestioned master of the dancefloor and is appreciated as such. Lane has a tendency of attempting suicide. His best friend sees everything – jelly, snow, etc – as drugs and consumes them as such. The most innapropriate people check with Lane to see if he’s cool with dating his ex – this includes his science teacher and – no lie – Barney Rubble from The Flintstones. There’s also street racing with a couple of Japanese guys, a lethal paperboy who really wants the two dollars he’s owed, Lane’s mum’s appalling culinary skills…I’m not sure I’ve mentioned everything, but you get the idea.

Oh wait, there’s probably the film’s most famous moment, when Lane, on his first day working at the local burger joint (owned by none other than Porky from, you know… Porky’s) escapes the drudgery of flipping meat by fantasising that he has created, Frankenstyle, a living, breathing, singing hamburger. Oh shit, I forgot, he plays guitar as well. And he has a girlfriend, who is also a hamburger. He seems to get on with the local Chip community too. All of this would be wonderful in itself, but the fact that the burger mimes to Van Halen’s killer ‘Everybody Wants Some!!!’ is just the relish on the meat. It’s a genuinely insane sequence, which could have only been even better had the sequence lasted long enough to include Eddie’s frankly phenomenal guitar instrumental, which I defy anyone not to jump about like an absolute nutter to.

Despite being based on Holland’s own experiences and feelings after being dumped, the film is so bonkers that it doesn’t quite have the heart of the sweetest teen romances, but moves so fast and is so delightfully crazy that it ends up being really lovable, and this is chiefly to do with the always-excellent Cusack, who is well suited to the role of a heartbroken yet slightly insane teen (despite the general unpleasantness of his ex, we can nevertheless see why she ditched him!). The lovely Franklin, who played a more unattainable love interest in the interesting The Last American Virgin and was very memorable as one half of the one of the decade’s most problematic teen seduction sequences in Amityville II, is a totally winning presence and does well (as does the film) to avoid any foreign exchange student stereotypes (we’re definitely not talking Sixteen Candles). Curtis Armstrong, who was also the best mate in Risky Business, has a live-wire presence that’s most amusing. Okay, so these are far from developed characters (the jock boyfriend who’s now going out with Lane’s ex is called Stalin, for God’s sake!) and the generally mad tone will really rub some viewers up the wrong way, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.

John Cusack apparently had a pop at this film at the time, saying it was the worst thing he had ever done and that Holland had made a fool of him by making him look so silly on screen. He was already working with Holland on One Crazy Summer by the time he got to see Better Off Dead, so I suppose it was too late to cancel working with him again. He’s apparently a little nicer towards the film now, and I suppose, having just starred in the wonderful (if far more normal) The Sure Thing, this might have looked like a joke of a movie. It’s a bloody good joke though.

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