Friday, August 31, 2012

Better Off Dead (1985)

The Movie: Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is a normal, everyday teenager who wants to make the school ski team. Unfortunately, despite the support of Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong of Revenge of the Nerds), his wanna-be druggie best friend, he fails. What really makes it a terrible day, however, is that his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss of A Nightmare on Elm Street) dumps him for Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier); the asshole head of the team.

Lane is devastated. Not knowing what else to do, he alternates between massively humiliating attempts to win her back and equally humiliating attempts to kill himself. However, he has a whole lot more to deal with than just heartbreak and his ex’s asshole new boyfriend. Psychotic paper boys, math class, a pair of drag-racer brothers who are always gunning for Lane when he’s on the road, his family and a fast food job; all these things and more conspire to make Lane’s life even more difficult and complicated.

Lane does, however, have a potential savior. Monique Junot (Diane Franklin of the Last American Virgin), the French foreign exchange student staying across the street, may know how to help Lane out of his slump. Unfortunately, in return Lane will have to rescue her from his socially inept neighbor, Ricky (Daniel Schneider), and Ricky’s domineering mother (Laura Waterbury). And then, of course, there’s still Stalin to deal with…

The Review:
“…and dying when you’re not really sick is really sick, you know? Really.”
-Charles De Mar

As American culture has this major obsession with youth, it’s probably not much of a surprise that Hollywood pumps out so many movies about adolescence. Admittedly, it is a truly interesting (in the Chinese sense of the word) time of life; on one hand it’s such a small period of time compared to the rest of one’s lifespan that it’s barely a blip, and yet what happens during this period greatly influences the rest of your life. I don’t care for nostalgia, and yet even I spend a lot of time focusing on this gaping ulcer on the consciousness. However, I have seen very few movies that accurately depict this most traumatic of periods. In fact, off the top of my head I can only name two; and the fact that they both star Diane Franklin is probably a coincidence. The first is the Last American Virgin; look up the review I wrote on that one if you’re curious. The second is our current offering: Better Off Dead; a movie that shows high school almost exactly as I remember it. Except that I never hooked up with a hot foreign exchange student. Le sigh.

Better Off Dead is, on first appearance, a very bizarre little film. The thing you have to understand to truly appreciate what is going on is that, ultimately, this movie is almost entirely shown from Lane Meyer’s point of view. In fact, even though he may seem to be depicted as a third-person character, he is very much shown in the first-person.

The back of my VHS box starts out describing Better Off Dead thusly: “Writer/director Savage Steve Holland says Better Off Dead is semi-autobiographical. After his high school love ditched him, he picked up an 8-milimeter camera and made some depressing movies that had the exact opposite effect on his friends-they laughed.” And that pretty much sums up the spirit of the film; it’s basically a movie about how a teenager would view his own life and place in the world. It’s weird, melodramatic, ridiculous, and over the top; but that’s really how teenagers perceive the world.

The world Lane inhabits is a bizarre, surreal place full of characters and events that seldom, if ever, make any kind of sense. There’s the psychotic paperboy, the part of this movie everyone seems to remember, who’s always screaming about his two dollars. There’s Lane’s mother, who’s incredibly bad cooking has a life of its own. There are the two Korean brothers who are always after Lane to drag race; one of them doesn’t speak English and the other learned his English from Howard Cosell. I would be negligent if I didn’t mention Charles De Mar; he can’t actually get real drugs, so instead he snorts things like jello and “pure snow” (it’s exactly what it sounds like).

My favorite part of the movie is Lane’s little brother, Badger. We never actually hear Badger speak, but he’s always ordering stuff through the mail. And here’s the thing; unlike in this world, everything he orders, whether it’s the “toy” laser gun, the book on how to pick up trashy women or the kit to build a rocket ship from household items, everything works exactly as it’s supposed to.

Of course, the crux of the movie is Lane’s breakup and how he gets over it; which I find all too authentic. Adolescence is when your hormones truly kick start, so emotions feel far more intense during the teenage years. Having your heart broken at this time of life is truly traumatic. Not that it ever gets any easier. Now, I have always maintained, as it’s the experience I’ve usually gone through, that the worst thing possible is to be passed up by a love interest for somebody who you cannot help but like and respect. However, it’s really no improvement to be discarded for an obvious creep. I’ve recently made a lot of inquiries as to why women go for creeps and assholes. I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

Roy Stalin is obviously a caricature (his last name’s Stalin for Pan’s sake); but as I mentioned earlier this movie is almost entirely from Lane’s perspective, and of course the guy who takes your girlfriend from you is automatically an asshole. It’s also notable that Lane and Beth’s relationship isn’t exactly healthy already. She’s rearing to jump ship for the first guy she thinks makes a better candidate; while the looks we get at Lane’s bedroom at the very beginning of the movie, particularly his closet, shows us that Lane has some problems with obsession.

After Lane gets dumped, he goes through the period where he simultaneously tries to turn back the clock, heal, forget, and/or escape. I think we’ve all been here, and the movie depicts it all too accurately. There’s the urge to fill that void in our life by automatically scooping up someone else; note Lane’s ill-advised and disastrous pass at the girl who dates the entire basketball team. There’s the attempts to just escape entirely; i.e. Lane’s humiliating suicide attempts. Lane attempts to win Beth back several times; which all, of course, end humiliatingly for him. And then there is the attempt to forget all about it while the rest of the world seems determined to rub it in your face. A scene I find particularly hilarious, because it so resonates with me, is when Lane is driving to school and every station he turns the radio to is playing a breakup song.

The conclusion to this nasty little triangle is actually kind of clever. Depending on how vindictive you are, it’s possible to see it as either the perfect revenge, or just as simple wish fulfillment. As the movie goes on, our views of Beth hint that she’s really starting to have second thoughts about taking up with Roy. At the end, when Lane shows what he’s really worth, she decides she wants him back after all. Unfortunately for Beth, however, by this time Lane’s gotten over her and moved on.

It is two individuals who are ultimately responsible for getting Lane through his heartbreak. The first is Charles De Mar; who, for all of his quirks, pretty much stands by and aids Lane the entire time. The other, of course, is Monique.

Better Off Dead was my introduction to Diane Franklin. After having seen her in this and several other movies, I am firmly of the view that she is an extremely talented and versatile actress. For one thing; while I’m, sadly, not familiar enough with French and its dialects to know how accurate her accent is, I found it rather jarring when I started seeing her in other movies where she speaks American English without any accent whatsoever.

And Franklin does a great job of establishing the character of Monique. For one thing, Monique doesn’t speak English for most of the movie. If you’re the stereotypical, monolinguistic ugly American (guilty), this means she might as well not be speaking at all. And yet, even so, Franklin does such a good job with facial expressions and body language that you know exactly who Monique is just the same. Also, I think the way she says “kick his ass” is so hot. Yeah, I’m obsessive.

As for where Monique fits into the story, she’s the one who provides Lane with what he really needs to get out of his funk. While it’s clear she has her eye on him from the beginning, it isn’t until late in the movie when they become more than platonic friends. All the while, it is Monique who pushes Lane to get out of his little cocoon of misery, who makes him face the world, and who, ultimately, shows Lane that he can succeed. While Monique is probably going to have to go back to France eventually, it’s clear that this is probably going to be a healthy relationship while it lasts. It does not, however, mean that all of Lane and Monique’s troubles are behind them; as our last view of them shows.

Finally, I must point out the character of Monique’s obnoxious host family; Ricky Smith and his mother. I find Ricky kind of interesting; partly because I’ve known many people a lot like him, but largely because the movie shows him in a halfway sympathetic light. Ricky is socially inept; and he would be a royal pain in the ass to deal with on a regular basis. However, the movie depicts him more as pitiful than repulsive. In fact, Ricky even finds somebody for himself at the end.

So, Better Off Dead; it’s bizarre, surreal, absurd, ridiculous and very strange. In short, it’s an almost perfect movie depiction of adolescence, and it’s a lot of fun.