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!

Back to School #28: Risky Business (dir by Paul Brickman)

Risky Business

“It was great the way her mind worked. No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialities. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate gratification. What a capitalist.” — Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in Risky Business (1983)

So, this is the film where Tom Cruise — playing a high school senior named Joel, who has been left at home on his own while his wealthy parents go on vacation — ends up dancing around his living room in his underwear.  It’s a scene that has shown up in countless awards show montages and which has been parodied, imitated, and recreated to such an extent that even people who have never seen the movie know the scene.

Risky Business is about a lot of different things.  It’s a coming-of-age film.  It’s both a celebration and a satire of material excess and greed.  It’s a time capsule of the 80s.  It’s a comedy.  It’s a drama.  It’s a somewhat twisted romance.  It features good performances, clever dialogue, and an excellent soundtrack.  It’s a film that does for “Sometimes you just go to say, ‘What the fuck?'” what Dead Poets Society did for “Carpe Diem.”

But ultimately, for a lot of people, Risky Business is always just going to be about Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.

And why not?  It’s a great scene, one that deserves its fame.  I’m not just saying that just because I happen to love dance scenes in general.  When Joel celebrates having the house to himself by dancing, he’s also celebrating his independence.  He’s celebrating the fact that he can do whatever he wants.  He’s celebrating freedom.  It’s true that sometime you just got to say, “What the fuck?”  But some other times, you just have to dance.

And you can’t deny that Tom Cruise is at his most appealing and spontaneous in this scene.  Actually, he’s at his most appealing and spontaneous throughout the entire film.  Up until I watched Risky Business, my main impression of Tom Cruise was that he was the creepy guy who forced Katie Holmes to abandon Catholicism for Scientology and chop off her hair.   I knew he was an okay actor but his greater appeal was lost on me.  I think that if I had gotten to know the Tom Cruise in Risky Business before I got to know the Tom Cruise who jumped up and down on that couch and who is rumored to be the secret leader of Scientology, I might have a different opinion of him as an actor.

Anyway, with all that said, here’s that famous scene:

As I said, as famous as that scene may be, there’s actually a lot more to Risky Business than just Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.  In fact, you could remove that entire scene and Risky Business would remain one of the defining films of the 80s.  It tells the story of Joel Goodson who lives up to his name in almost every way.  He’s a very good son.  He gets good grades in high school.  He’s a member of the Future Enterprisers of America.  His father has decided that Joel is going to go to Princeton and Joel isn’t one to argue.  When his parents leave him alone at the house, they also leave him with a long list of rules and they have every reason to believe that Joel will follow every one of them.

But then Joel meets a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and he makes an enemy out of Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano) and then his father’s car ends up rolling into a river and, next thing you know, Joel is partnering up with Lana to turn his house into a brothel and they’re making $8,000 in one night.

And really, as good as Tom Cruise is, Rebecca De Mornay is even better because she has a tougher role to play.  As written, Lana is essentially a male fantasy figure.  (And there’s still a part of me that suspect the entire film was meant to be Joel’s daydream.)  But, as played by De Mornay, Lana actually becomes a real human being and someone who definitely has something important to say.  If Cruise gives the film its energy and its heart, De Mornay gives the film a brain. It’s no coincidence that Joel is the one who dances in the living room while Lana is the one who sets up business deals.  With her no-nonsense approach to life and her love of money, she comes to symbolize the film’s own conflicted views of wealth and success.  It’s not by chance that the American flag appears on TV while Joel and Lana are fucking in the living room.  Together, Joel and Lana are the perfect American success story.

Joel Goodson, Super Pimp