Film / Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead is a 1985 teen comedy film directed by Savage Steve Holland and starring John Cusack.

After being dumped by his utterly-unfaithful girlfriend Beth, luckless teen Lane Meyer makes several futile attempts to kill himself, while wandering in and out of a series of encounters with the residents... inmates of his bizarre hometown. These include his super-genius younger brother Badger; his severely-underachieving best friend Charles; a pair of Korean car-racing enthusiasts, the one who speaks English having learned it by listening to Howard Cosell; and one very determined paper-boy. Lane's life finally begins to turn around when he meets Monique, a comely French exchange student who has been sentenced to live with Lane's grotesque neighbors.

Probably doesn't quite make it to classic status, especially the ending which veers off into painfully straight teen-movie win-the-athletic-competition territory, but mentioning this film or quoting from it is very likely to bring a smile to the face of Tropers of a certain age. It does have a pretty strong cult following due to the fact that aside from that ending, it has a different sense of humor than most '80s teen comedies and seems far less dated than other films of its type.

This film series provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: The overweight, socially awkward Ricky has limited experience with the opposite sex, so when he and his mother host Monique during her student exchange, he latches onto her immediately, with encouragement from his mother. Monique finds him utterly repulsive, and simply pretends not to speak English (while Ricky and his mother do not speak a word of French) in an attempt to reduce the amount of time she has to spend around him.
  • The Ace: Everyone other than Lane seems to have incredible skill at doing things. Highlighted by Lane's younger brother, who uses his book knowledge to pick up trashy women and build a launchable space shuttle in the attic.
  • all lowercase letters: The opening and closing credits.
  • Animated Credits Opening
  • Ascended Meme: "I want my two dollars!"
  • Braces of Orthodontic Overkill: Joanne Greenwald, Lane's unfortunate but practical blind-date, is described by Lane as having antennae growing out of her face. When we see her, she has such a massive and complicated set of orthodontic headgear that she probably can pick up radio signals with it.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In-universe example: Barney Rubble of The Flintstones interrupts a broadcast to ask Lane if he can date Beth.
  • Bungled Suicide: Several — it's one of the film's Running Gags.
    • First, Lane tries hanging himself in the garage, only to have a change of heart when he decides he hasn't really lived yet. A pity his mother proceeds to open the back door into him while vacuuming, knocking him off the step and forcing him to grab the noose to keep from getting strangled.
    • Then, he tries carbon monoxide poisoning. However, as he passes out, he accidentally puts the car in reverse and backs through the garage door his father has just repaired.
    • Next, he tries jumping off a bridge, only to land in the back of a garbage truck.
    • Finally, after seeing a headline about a man committing suicide by setting himself on fire, he wraps himself in his bedclothes and goes into the garage to find a can of gasoline; he has to settle for paint primer, but as he is discreetly dabbing himself with it during a family dinner with the Smiths and Monique as guests, Mrs. Smith drinks a big glass of the primer, mistaking it for liquor. Then she lights a cigarette...
      Lane: Gee, I'm real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.
  • Burger Fool: Lane has to wear a hideous pig-themed hat, even though he works back in the kitchen.
  • Claymation: A brief sequence set in the burger joint where Lane works.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Lane's mother Jenny.
  • Cool Car: Initially averted with Lane's canvas-draped, cobwebbed (and nonfunctional) Camaro. But once Monique gets her hands on it, it goes from aversion to expression.
  • The Determinator: "I want my two dollars!!"
  • Driven to Suicide: Lane decides he has nothing left to live for after Beth leaves him for Roy Stalin, captain of the ski team. Unfortunately, his every attempt to do himself in ends in hilarious failure.
  • The '80s: Identifiable by the catchy pop song soundtrack.
  • Enfant Terrible: "I want my two dollars!!"
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: Inverted, because Mr. Kerber is just that good. Every student in the class (except the distracted Lane) hangs on his every word, and even though his homework assignments are long enough to require several folders' worth of paper to answer, every student (except, again, the distracted Lane) is happy to do them, and when Mr. Kerber asks for volunteers to write answers on the chalkboard, a forest of hands goes up.
  • Evil Genius: Badger is highly intelligent, but seems to put his intelligence to rather sinister uses, such as modifying a toy laser to fire real laser blasts, buying a book on how to pick up trashy women (and it works!), and building a working Space Shuttle that launches through the roof of his family's house during the closing credits.
  • Funny Background Event:
    • Look carefully in the cafeteria scene before the basketball team engage in a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown against Lane and you'll see they're all eating baby food.
    • When Lane enters the house after deciding to douse himself in paint primer and set himself on fire, he throws the cloth he found in the mouth of the jar into the dining room, unaware that anyone is in there. However, his parents and brother are there with the Smiths and Monique. As his mother ushers Lane to his seat for dinner, we see his father disgustedly remove the primer-soaked cloth from where it landed on his shoulder.
  • Funny Foreigner: Monique mostly avoids this, except for one or two slight problems with English.
  • Homemade Sweater from Hell: Jenny wears a reindeer outfit, complete with an antler-headpiece, to distribute the family's Christmas gifts.
  • Impossibly Tacky Clothes: Jenny's big Christmas present for her husband Al is a coat made with "real aardvark fur", complete with an aardvark head on the hood. She assures Al that everybody will be wearing one; Al struggles to hide his disgust, but Jenny may be right, as their next door neighbour is also wearing one when they go outside.
  • I Need to Go Iron My Dog:
    • On Christmas Day, Lane is on the phone to Beth, with the tiny teddy bear he has bought her as a Christmas present in the hope of persuading her to return to him. From his half of the conversation, we learn that Roy gave her a giant teddy bear larger than she is. Embarrassed, he mutters, "Beth, I gotta go, the Christmas tree's on fire." Even though he's in his bedroom and the Christmas tree is in the living room.
    • Lane ditching the paperboy.
      Lane: My little brother got his arm stuck in the microwave. So my mom had to take him to the hospital. My grandma dropped acid this morning, and she freaked out. She hijacked a busload of... penguins. So it's sort of a family crisis. Bye!
  • Instant Expert: "Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."
  • Insult Backfire: Played with when Stalin insults Lane and Charles at one point during the New Years dance; Lane is insulted, but Charles finds it hilarious, even interrupting Stalin's dance with Beth because he's still laughing.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Lane's suicide attempts all end in failure, climaxing when he decides to douse himself in paint primer (the gasoline can being empty) and set himself on fire, only to be hauled into a dinner his parents are hosting for the Smiths and Monique. Mrs. Smith drinks some of the primer, thinking it's wine, then lights a cigarette...
  • It Is Pronounced Tro-PAY: Lane's mother serves Monique "Frahnch Fries", etc.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Monique restores Lane's Camaro and coaches him on how to conquer the K-12, and falls in love with him in the process even though she knows she is actively aiding his efforts to win Beth back. Of course, Lane comes to his senses in time and goes off with Monique at the end of the film.
  • Jerk Jock: The villain, such as he is. His name? Roy Stalin.
  • Language of Love: Subverted, when it turns out that Monique speaks English fairly fluently.
  • Lethal Chef: Hoo boy. Jenny.
    • Lane pokes one of her creations with his fork, and it starts moving away.
      Jenny: It's got raisins in it. You like raisins.
    • She's so bad, she gives TV dinners as Christmas presents.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Monique.
  • Meaningful Name: Roy Stalin.
  • Medium Shift Gag: There are a couple of gag sequences in both clay and hand-drawn animation, representing Lane's bizarre daydreams about dancing hamburgers and so forth.
  • Mess on a Plate: Lane's mother spoons grey-green goo (with raisins!) directly onto Lane's plate. He pokes it with his fork and it crawls away.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Mr Kerber's maths class, wherein advanced geometry is ludicrously popular. Apart from Lane, who is too busy moping over Beth to pay attention, every student in the room reacts with unbridled interest and fascination to every word that comes out of Mr. Kerber's mouth, and when he asks for volunteers to demonstrate the problems on the latest (very, very long) homework assignment, every student in the room (apart from Lane, again) raises an eager hand. (To be fair, Kerber is played by Vincent Schiavelli.)
  • My Beloved Smother: Ricky's social awkwardness is implied to be caused by his overbearing harridan of a mother, who is forcibly setting him up with the horrified Monique.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: After the break-up, every guy from the math teacher to the rude mailman to Barney Rubble is asking Lane if it would be alright to date his ex.
  • Naked Freak-Out: The roller-skating cheerleader in the cafeteria in her underwear, due to Lane's accidental slip-up. To make matters worse, ALL of her boyfriends give him a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
  • Overly Long Gag: Roy makes a joke at Lane and Charles's expense. Charles bursts out laughing. A lot. To the point where he later interrupts a romantic dance between Roy and his girlfriend because he's still laughing.
  • Product Placement: A very prominent flag for The North Face is shown directly above Lane's head while in the ski shop, though averted in another scene with a equally-prominent Coke can that is carefully oriented so that the viewer can't see the logo.
  • Prop Recycling: Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century appears in the background of the Christmas scene.
  • Reverse Harem: Chris Cummins is a cheerleader who dates the basketball team. The entire team.
  • Rule of Funny: This movie essentially runs on this, no matter how weird the jokes can get.
  • Running Gag:
    • "I want my two dollars!!"
    • Lane's drag-race-at-the-stoplight moments, plus the crash into the driver behind him.
    • Badger's mail-order purchases.
    • The garage door windows getting broken.
    • And, as noted, Lane's deeply futile suicide attempts.
  • Spiritual Successor:
  • Stalker Shrine: Lane has turned his room into one of these, dedicated to his girlfriend.
  • Standard Snippet: Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" as Lane's Camaro rolls out for the first time. Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" during the Christmas sequence.
  • Stealth Pun: The mountain Lane hopes to ski down to impress Beth enough to take him back is called the K-12, as in the grades of pre-collegiate education in the USA.
  • Stock Shout-Out: Lane doing Frankenstein-imbuing-the-creature-with-life at the start of the "Everybody Wants Some" sequence.
  • The Stoner: Charles.
    • Or he would be, if he could find anything to get stoned on.
      Charles: Greendale is a bodaciously small town, Lane. It's a flyspeck on the map, a rest-stop on the way to a ski resort. I can't even get real drugs here!
    • Snorting real snow seems to work for him.
      Charles: This is pure snow! It's EVERYWHERE! Have you any idea what the street value of this mountain is?
  • Suicide as Comedy: Detecting a theme yet?
    Charles: And dying when you're not really sick is really sick, you know? Really!
  • Title Drop: The singer at the school dance.
  • Tom Boy And Girly Girl
  • Totally Radical: Lane's father awkwardly attempts to "connect" with him. He has to keep glancing at a book about youth psychology and still gets the words wrong, telling Lane to "Mellow off", that he's "really bringing [him] over", and exclaims "Right off!" when Lane finally agrees to date his law partner's daughter.
  • Translation By Volume: Lane's father tries to communicate with Monique the exchange student from France.
  • Trash Landing:
  • Unkempt Beauty: Monique looks surprisingly hot with car grease on her face.
  • Vanity License Plate: The villain's Trans-Am.
  • The Voiceless: Badger never says a word throughout the film. His book on how to pick up trashy women presumably includes some non-verbal methods.
  • The World Mocks Your Loss: Lane is constantly reminded of his ex, Beth, because every other guy in town (and Barney Rubble) wants to date her.
  • Wrench Wench: Monique turns out to be one. Lane bought an old, non-functional Camaro to impress Beth, but has dragged his feet about actually restoring it for several months. Monique gets it up and running in a matter of days.

"I want my two dollars!"