'Better Off Dead' Still Cleverly Unruly and Bizarre

Directed by: Savage Steve Holland, Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: B+

Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead... is a thoroughly compelling but indisputably odd bird, operating under the guise of a seemingly standard '80s teenage comedy that ventures into much more bizarre, unconventional territory than the likes of John Hughes' comparatively grounded creations. Scratch out the verbose reflections and sentimental moments; instead, imagine botched suicide attempts, stop-motion cheeseburgers, and goops of slimy teal raisin casserole served over a family dinner, while an obsessive high-school guy gets used to his girlfriend dumping him for someone better-looking and more popular -- and a better skier. While the inventiveness Holland embodies occasionally stretches its wacky boundaries beyond what the clear-cut premise can handle, reveling in its often riotous eccentricity earns the director some leeway for roughness around the edges.

See, Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is obsessed. There's really no way of getting around it: he's blinded with mania over his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), shown by the glut of photos adorning every inch of his room. So when she ditches him for ace slope-runner Roy (Aaron Dozier), the captain of their high school's skiing team who can blitz down the ever-so-dangerous K-12 course without a hitch, he's sent into a tailspin. Not just any tailspin; he attempts suicide every chance he gets, and when his attempts aren't panning out, he dodges his father's (David Ogden Stiers) stern calls to date other girls and to fix up his tarp-adorned '67 Camaro. While dealing with the universe's scheming to keep him alive just so he can see his ex-girlfriend parading around with her new hunk, a melancholy Lane starts to take notice of the French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) living across the street -- who, oddly, doesn't speak a bit of English, much to the aggravation of her peculiar host family.

Obviously getting its name from Lane's glum state, Better Off Dead... also takes a daring angle in poking fun at the extent of the teen's "moppishness", running the gamut of grief -- from flinging himself off a bridge to hotboxing in the garage with car exhaust -- as it generates deadpan wit. The humor flirts with darkness because of it, occurring alongside the brutish bullying from Roy at school and his family's seemingly cold-shouldered reaction to his break-up, yet the script blithely plays with his comedic last-minute ramblings and trepidation for a mix of ridiculousness and empathy as he rears back from ending it all. Holland isn't interested in a naturally solemn depiction of Lane's grief, instead using his mindset as a springboard for John Cusack to exert his quirky charm through a compilation of oddly macabre situations and absurdist humor.

Instead, Better Off Dead... operates the way I'd expect some artists' brain cells would if looked at underneath a microscope, which makes sense considering Holland's animation background. Scatterbrained, creatively unruly yet indisputably magnetic, he slaps together a collage of inventive situational oddities into a colorfully hectic and inconsistent rush, fully content in having little direction other than to hurl gags at the audience. It jolts wildly between aims; odd meals dreamed up by Lane's loony mother mix with a French-speaking girl warding off the creepy smothering from her host family, while a bloodthirsty paperboy (Demian Slade) stalks Lane and demands payment -- "Two dollars!" -- like a kneecapping thug. While these quirks recur over and over and consistently meet foreseeable ends, sometimes frustratingly so, their unconventional bizarreness always finds a way to mesmerize on some level.

Though boisterous and fragmented, Holland's chaos isn't just purely pointless gags. Better Off Dead... fits the mold of the '80s teenage fare, sure, with a misunderstood loner losing his girl to a hunkier guy, while he rediscovers his self-worth after dragging through break-up muck and pondering how to win her back. Yet while using Holland's creative larks as unique distractions in Lane's mind, where we're constantly left wondering exactly what's in his noggin and what's actually taking place in the Meyer household, it's also a clever, offbeat portrayal of a thwarted teen's anxiety. And it really doesn't matter what's real, surreal, or unreal; from a classroom full of students cheerfully fawning over their math teacher (while Lane daydreams of losing his virginity to Beth) to the last, fated race down the K-12 slope, Holland's relentlessly inventive escapade through teenage angst simply has a lot of raucous fun.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]


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