By: Quinn Zach
The teen high school comedy is a film genre that has been considered cliche and predictable for decades.
Even the films we closely associate as the most iconic in the genre seem to try anything they can to subvert the trends expected of them. The idiotic father, clueless mother, wise beyond their years' little sibling, the pompous and athletic bully, all of these are absent from films such as “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”, or a myriad of others still remembered to this day.
What makes the now relatively unknown director Savage Steve Holland’s debut film “Better Off Dead” still so memorable despite including every single trope one can expect from the genre is in the sheer absurdity by which all of those ideas are expressed.
The film follows Lane Meyer played by John Cusack, a High School student who’s comically obsessed with Beth, his girlfriend of 6 months. His blind devotion is challenged once she decides to break up with him over a narcissistic Skier who’s actually named Stalin.
This causes Lane to lose faith in his life pretty profoundly until he meets Monique, (played by Diane Franklin) a French exchange student temporarily living across the street from him. Lane gives Monique a way to escape the downright weird and dysfunctional family she’s staying with and as they fall in love she helps him learn to be confident in himself, as she is capable and outspoken in a way that Lane could only dream of.
Using this newfound confidence Lane attempts to race Stalin on a highly treacherous slope to prove himself against his overconfident rival. The plot may seem boring and predictable, but as I said before the way it’s communicated with the characters and situations that support it are anything but.
On his journey to emerge victorious over Stalin, Lane interacts with some pretty ridiculous characters including a pair of Japanese street racers, a paperboy obsessing over the two dollars everyone owes him, Ricky the creepily awkward son of the family Monique stays with and an impressive number of others.
My favorite character is definitely Lane’s hilariously eccentric best friend Charles, as everything from his mannerisms to how he dresses are used for comedic effect. That combined with not only some uniquely created visual gags but even some imaginative animated sequences mean there is really never a moment of “Better Off Dead” that feels boring or predictable in the slightest despite its framework seeming less than inspired.
To be fair the off the wall and sometimes surprisingly dark humor style is definitely not something that will appeal to everyone and I could definitely imagine some viewers finding it a little too abstract and silly at times but still the majority of jokes are set up quite well rewarding those who pay close attention and the fair few that might just seem a little trashy or predictable are quickly replaced by a vast amount more than make up for them.
To be clear, “Better Off Dead” isn’t a genre-defining example of an 80’s teen comedy in the vein of anything John Hughes was responsible for at the time, it’s just a bit too silly and unrestrained for that. However, it’s dark and abstract sense of humor, downright ridiculous characters and how it does everything in its power to parody the conventions plaguing similar films of the era makes “Better Off Dead” a classic in its own right.