Nothing glows in the warm light of nostalgia like ’80s high-school comedies, which were crude and schlocky in their best instances, yet draw a level of affection that comes as much from coach-potato memories as from any resounding merit. It would be a stretch to call 1985’s Better Off Dead, the first of two quick-and-dirty Savage Steve Holland/John Cusack team-ups, anything greater than a broad, shambling, hit-or-miss piece of comic craftsmanship. What it has in its favor is affability—some owed to Cusack’s gawky young charisma, some to Holland’s goofy tone and lightly surreal sense of humor, and still more to a cast where even the villains are mostly likeable. (Save for one in the series of interchangeable jock bullies with feathered blond hair that appeared in virtually every teen movie of the era.) To paraphrase the opening narration in The Big Lebowski, Better Off Dead is the movie for its time and place. It fits right in there.
In the early going, Cusack loses his dream girl (Amanda Wyss) to the preening captain of the high-school ski team, ostensibly because he’s the better skier. (In actuality, it may be because Cusack papers every corner of his bedroom and closet with pictures of Wyss, in what looks something like a serial killer’s shrine.) After trying unsuccessfully to kill himself, Cusack resolves instead to best his romantic rival on the slopes, which will surely impress his ex-girlfriend enough that she’ll switch back. The adorable French foreign-exchange student (Diane Franklin, convincing only in the “adorable” department) across the street offers a different outcome, but happily, the plotting gives way to offbeat running gags and fantasy sequences, and a slice of life that brings in Cusack’s quirky parents, a top-hat-donning Curtis Armstrong as his best friend, and assorted other freaks and geeks.
Five words: “I want my two dollars!” That’s all it has taken for the cult of Better Off Dead to endure, much as it will forever haunt Cusack (who hated the movie), and as catchphrases go, it certainly beats “Yeah, baby, yeaaaaaah.” Throwaway bits like the paperboy relentlessly pursuing his compensation, an Asian drag racer who appears to have learned English from Howard Cosell, or a song-and-dance number featuring an animated burger are the film’s lifeblood. Without them, it’s just another mild, inoffensive, half-competent ’80s comedy, no better than Revenge Of The Nerds II or Holland and Cusack’s follow-up effort, One Crazy Summer. No wonder it became a favorite among latchkey kids: It mirrors their bored need for distraction.
Key features: The trailer.