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Film / Better Off Dead

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"I want my two dollars!"

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

After being dumped by his utterly-unfaithful girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), luckless teenager Lane Meyer (Cusack) makes several futile attempts to kill himself, while wandering in and out of a series of encounters with the residents—or should we say inmates—of his bizarre hometown of Greendale, California. These include Lane's long-suffering father Al (David Ogden Stiers), ditzy mother Jenny (Kim Darby), and super-genius younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens); his severely-underachieving best friend Charles (Curtis Armstrong); a pair of Korean car-racing enthusiasts, the one who speaks English having learned it from listening to Howard Cosell; and one very determined paper-boy. Lane's life finally begins to turn around when he meets Monique (Diane Franklin), a comely French exchange student who has been sentenced to live with the Meyers' grotesque neighbor Mrs. Smith (Laura Waterbury) and her socially awkward son Ricky (Dan Schneider).

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.

"Now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good trope list like that":

  • 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. He finds a more suitable match at the very end of the film.
  • 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.
  • Actor Allusion: When Beth (Amanda Wyss) shows up at the dance, there is someone behind her wearing Freddy Krueger's sweater. Wyss played Krueger's first victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
  • all lowercase letters: The opening and closing credits.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Joanne Greenwald has to struggle to keep her family's large furiously barking dog inside the house.
  • Animated Credits Opening
  • Ascended Meme: "I want my two dollars!"
  • Blind Date: Joanne and Lane get set up by their fathers. Neither is actually interested in it and Joanne just calculates how much money they would have spent on the date and suggests Lane just give her that and they avoid the trouble of actually going out on a date.
  • 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.
  • Brick Joke: After establishing some of the absurd things Badger gets as his box-top mail-order prizes, including a book on how to pick up trashy women and an actual working Ray Gun, he acquires a space shuttle construction kit about halfway through the movie. Other than Lane bringing up in passing that his brother is still working on it, it doesn't come up again until the very last scene of the movie, when a space shuttle suddenly crashes through the Meyers' roof and flies off into space.
  • Bumbling Dad: Downplayed by Al, who is definitely one of these, but compared to the rest of Greendale, hes one of the most normal and straight-laced residents.
  • 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 change his mind, and Charles gives him an encouraging pat on the back that pushes him off, only to land in the back of a garbage truck.
      "Now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that!"
    • 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 thinner, but is then dragged into a family dinner with the Smiths and Monique as guests where Mrs. Smith drinks a big glass of the thinner, 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 at Pig Burger, even though he works back in the kitchen.
  • Butt-Monkey: Al. His windows get broken. His children are troubled. His wife is a Lethal Chef who gives him a ridiculous coat to wear for Christmas.
  • Cassandra Truth: Al is right on the money when he observes that Monique has to have known some English to come over as an exchange student but he's ignored. Upon hearing about Monique's arrival, he speculates that Mrs Smith agreed to host an exchange student because she thinks it's the only way Ricky will get anything resembling a social life or girlfriend. Monique, at least, seems to think the same and expresses disgust at both the Smiths' actions towards her.
  • The Chew Toy: Lane, who the entire universe seems to hate.
  • Claymation: A brief sequence set in the burger joint where Lane works. Set to Van Halen, no less!
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Lane's mother Jenny is a Lethal Chef who gives bizarre Christmas gifts. Her idea of a French dinner includes French fries, French dressing, French bread, and Perrier (which she pronounces as "Peru" for some reason).
  • 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: The paper boy will stop at nothing to receive his pay.
    "I want my two dollars!!"
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Christmas is mentioned at least once in the film, as it is one of the times when Lane Meyer tries to kill himself, this time via car exhaust asphyxiation.
  • Die or Fly: Played for laughs. No amount of encouraging pep talks can get Lane to make it down K-12 without crashing and tumbling... until the paperboy comes right out of nowhere and starts chasing him again, at which point he not only beats Stalin in a race while skiing for his life, but does it on one ski after the other one broke.
  • Disappeared Dad: It's mentioned that Ricky's father is dead.
  • 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.
  • Eccentric Townsfolk: Everybody we meet in Greendale, even Lane himself, are all at least a little off-kilter.
  • The '80s: Identifiable by the catchy pop song soundtrack.
  • Enfant Terrible: The menacing paperboy. "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.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Beth looks a little uncomfortable as Stalin insults Lane at the Burger Fool place.
  • 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.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: If you pay close attention, in the cafeteria scene where Stalin harasses Lane, Monique, and Ricky, you can actually see Monique take the Coke off the table, leading up to the more obvious close up of her hand shaking it up and then spraying him with it.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • There are multiple hints that Monique might be faking.
      • The multiple disgusted looks she gives at Ricky and his mom.
      • When she steps on the gas in Lane's car. The only way she could have understood that the Ree brothers wanted a race was if she understood English.
      • The part where she blasts the soda in Stalin's face. She obviously knows exactly what he's saying.
      • When Ricky says he's telling his mom after the crash, she starts laughing harder.
      • After Lane tells her about the Camaro before going to the ski shop, she looks knowingly at the covered Camaro, foreshadowing both that she understood what he said and that she will be able to fix it.
    • On a less character related note, Charles tells Lane to take up the sax again to impress Beth. Late in the movie, he's shown playing it at the restaurant, but not for Beth. For Monique.
  • 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 thinner 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 thinner-soaked cloth from where it landed on his shoulder.
    • After the announcement that Lane will be racing Roy, everyone in the cafeteria starts cheering for him... except for Ricky, who just takes the opportunity to quickly steal Monique's Ring Ding.
  • Funny Foreigner: Monique mostly avoids this except for one or two slight problems with English.
  • Hidden Depths: Ricky is an ok disco dancer.
  • Homemade Sweater from Hell: Jenny wears a reindeer outfit, complete with an antler-headpiece, to distribute the family's Christmas gifts.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Ricky when he's dancing with Monique. He's also a couple of heads taller than his new girlfriend at the end.
  • 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 with 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!
  • Innocently Insensitive: The ski rental guy who got hurt doing K-12 and talks about what a moron it would take to go back on there right after Lane has agreed to a race there.
  • 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 (though this may be Charles' way of turning the insult around - it's hard to insult someone who genuinely acts as if he thinks your comments are hilarious, and given how Stalin has to keep walking away from him, it's working).
  • Interrupted Suicide: Lane's suicide attempts all end in failure, climaxing when he decides to douse himself in paint thinner (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 thinner, thinking it's wine, then lights a cigarette...
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: Not the IRS, but Johnny the Paperboy constantly pursues Lane for the $2 he owes for four weeks of newspapers, going so far as to go up a ski slope with his bike and skis to collect his money.
  • 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.
  • Kick the Dog: Beth isn't exactly wrong to break up with the obsessed, eccentric Lane, but telling him to his face that it's just for social status and she thinks he's dragging her down is pretty cold.
  • Language of Love: Subverted when it turns out that Monique speaks English fairly fluently.
  • Learnt English from Watching Television: One of the Asian street racers learned English from Howard Cosell, and can only talk like Cosell.
  • 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.
  • Love at First Sight: At the very end of the film, Ricky meets a smiling gal who is essentially his female equivalent. He stares for a long moment, gives a sort of "oh, why not" shrug and goes off with her arm in arm, leaving his mother squashed in the snow.
  • Malaproper: Monique gets into this territory once or twice due to not being a native English speaker. For example, she complains to Lane about Ricky putting his "testicles" all over her; Lane points out that the word she's looking for is "tentacles".
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Monique, sort of. She is the one who finally blows Lane out of his self-pitying rut, but she's also the most competent, level-headed and normal person in the entire movie - which probably more-or-less makes her a straight version of the trope. When everyone in town is weird, being "normal" makes you the "weird" one.
  • 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. And the less said about the boiled bacon, the better.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Mr Kerber's math 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.
  • News Travels Fast: Exaggerated. Lane eventually gets fed up with Stalin's bullying and challenges him to a race down K-12. Despite his insistence that "No one has to know" about the race, mere seconds after Roy storms off, an announcement of the race is broadcast over the intercom.
  • Obstacle Ski Course: "Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."
  • Off Bridge, onto Vehicle: Lane is preparing to commit suicide by throwing himself off an overpass when a slap on the back from his friend Charles sends him over the edge, only for him to land in a garbage truck that was passing underneath.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • As noted, Greendale evidently had to import from France to get even one person whose bubble isn't at least a little off-plumb. And then the environment evidently takes its toll on her as well...
    • Out of the natives, Al and, curiously, Roy are the ones who appear to be the most normal. Of course, Roy is this due to his role as a Jerk Jock, and Al is the quintessential Bumbling Dad, which should tell you something about Greendale.
  • 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.
  • Polyamory: Cheerleader Chris Cummins apparently dates the entire basketball team.
  • Pretentious Pronunciation: Lane's mother serves Monique "Frahnch Fries", etc. And to drink, Peru!
  • Previously Overlooked Paramour: Lane spends a good portion of the film pining for his ex, Beth. In the interim, he strikes up a friendship with the French exchange student and automotive enthusiast Monique. By the end of the race to win Beth's affections back (which he wins on one ski) Lane realizes that he and Monique are much more compatible.
  • 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.
  • Quirky Town: Greendale.
  • 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.
  • Shameful Strip: Chris Cummins seems pretty mortified when Lane (while wildly grabbing after he falls due to his unfamiliarity with the roller skates he's wearing) grabs onto her cheerleading uniform and yanks it off, leaving Chris standing there in the cafeteria with her underwear exposed.
  • Sibling Team: The two drag racer brothers.
  • Stalker Shrine: Lane has turned his room into one of these, dedicated to his girlfriend.
  • Standard Snippet:
    • Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" plays as Lane's Camaro rolls out for the first time.
    • Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" plays 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. This is also a reference to K2, a very big, very dangerous mountain in the Himalayas.
  • 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?
  • Suddenly Voiced: Ricky doesn't say much of anything until the drag race he's present for.
  • Suicide as Comedy: Detecting a theme yet?
    Charles: And dying when you're not really sick is really sick, you know? Really!
  • The Television Talks Back: As alluded to above, when Lane came home from a bad day at school and turned the TV to The Flintstones, he got this:
    Barney Rubble: Hey there, Lane, I know this is a little awkward, me being a cartoon and all... I was just wondering how you'd feel if I took out Beth.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Ricky's existence is clearly pretty miserable, and at the very end of the movie he gets a (willing) girlfriend.
  • Title Drop: The singer at the school dance.
  • 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 by shouting.
  • Trash Landing:
    "Now that's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that!"
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Badger, who gets an actual working Ray Gun as a box-top prize in the mail, and then a book on how to pick up trashy women, and then is later seen in a room full of them, complete with alcohol. By the end of the movie, he's built an actual working space shuttle and flies off into space.
  • 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. This could just be an expression of contempt for Lane.
    • Monique spends much of the film saying nothing at all, and the few words she does speak are in unsubtitled French. Eventually, it's revealed that she actually can speak English just fine, but pretends she can't just so that she doesn't have to talk to the Smiths.
  • 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!"