Back to School #40: Better Off Dead (dir by Savage Steve Holland)


There’s something really sad about knowing that John Cusack does not like the 1985 teen comedy, Better Off Dead, despite the fact that he himself starred in the film.

Just how much he dislikes the film depends on who you talk to.  I read an interview with the film’s director — the wonderfully named Savage Steve Holland — in which he said that Cusack approached him after a screening of the film and told him that he totally hated the film and would “never trust” Holland again.  (What’s truly sad is that Holland also said that this encounter caused him to momentarily lose all interesting in film making.)  However, a few years ago, Cusack said, while answering questions on Reddit, that he didn’t hate Better Off Dead, he just felt that it could be better and that he was glad that other people still like it.  In another interview, Cusack said that the “absurdist humor” of Better Off Dead just wasn’t his thing.

John, I understand that you’re a serious actor and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the fact that you’re an outspoken liberal who is still intellectually honest enough to hold Obama up to the same standard to which you previously held Bush.  But honestly, John, maybe you should loosen up just a little.  Not all of your movies have to be The Butler!  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself onscreen.  And there’s nothing wrong with entertaining an audience and leaving them happy.  Better Off Dead may be one of more lightweight films that I’m reviewing for this Back to School series but it’s a lot of fun!  It makes people smile.  And you know what?  A lot of those smiling people are going to be more willing to see you in a film like The Butler because they’ve also seen you in films like Better Off Dead.

Add to that, you give a pretty good performance in Better Off Dead.  In fact, you provide the film with a much-needed center.  A lot of the comedy in Better Off Dead may be absurd but John, your performance is so likable and so grounded that you keep the film from getting too weird.  You do such a good job as Lane Myer and are so convincing as a well-meaning but dorky high school student who is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) by skiing down a mountain that it allows everyone else to be as weird as the film will allow.  Without your excellent performance, John, the film would be a total mess.


Better Off Dead is essentially a collection of skits.  There’s a plot but the plot is really only there as an excuse for the nonstop jokes.  For instance, there’s Lane’s best friend, Charles (Curtis Armstrong, essentially playing the same character he played in Risky Business) who spends the entire film looking for things to snort and who, when standing atop of snowy mountain, says, “This is pure snow!  Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is!?”

And then there’s Monique (Diane Franklin), the foreign exchange student who lives next door to Lane and who pretends that she can’t speak English because she’s trying to avoid being set up with creepy Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider).

There’s Lane’s mother (Kim Darby), who cooks some of the strangest looking meals ever seen in an American film.  There’s also Lane’s younger brother, who never speaks but who knows how to build a laser gun.  Even Lane’s father (David Ogden Stiers). who seems relatively normal, still manages to destroy the garage door.

There’s the fact that Lane’s romantic rival is named Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).  Is that not just the perfect name for a villain?

There’s my favorite scene in the entire film, where a geometry teacher (Vincent Schiavelli) explains a complicated problem to his class and the class responds by cheering him along.  “Who wants to come up here and solve the problem?” the teacher asks.  The entire class raises their hands and goes, “Me!”

There’s quotable and memorable lines like: “I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy,” ” Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that,” and “Gee, I’m really sorry your mom blow up, Ricky.”

And, of course, there’s that paperboy who wants his two dollars…

Seriously, John, Better Off Dead might not be your favorite movie but it’s really not that bad!

Want to see just how not bad Better Off Dead really is?  Watch it below!