A Look Back: Better Off Dead

Typically, winter is a season that does not lend itself to teen comedy films, at least not half as well as summer, which has the advantage of a three month vacation (in the U.S.), fall (which marks the start of another school year), or spring (break or perhaps the weeks right before school ends). Spring can be tricky, if you keep the setting in school, ignore the subject of college applications and make the characters seniors because then you have the viewer wondering why everyone seems so blithely unconcerned about their future. John Hughes managed to sidestep this issue altogether in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” by presenting the whole day as taking place in an alternate dimension where anything was possible. Though Matthew Broderick does mention college briefly, it doesn’t intrude on the storyline. But if you set a movie in mid-winter, particularly if it centers around specific sports, you have the added issue of where to get the snow. In the eighties’ classic, “Better Off Dead,” starring John Cusack as a high schooler with a mind-boggling array of problems, snow is a necessity because the Big Climax centers around a ski race. The season itself is also a nice metaphor for the overall bleakness in John’s character’s life.

How bleak you may ask? Well, John considers and attempts suicide, after being dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) after she goes for evil ski jock (Aaron Dozier), John’s rival. He’s got one of those teen comedy movie families whose members range from eccentric to downright clueless, including a father (David Ogden Stiers) who is in a perpetual feud with the paperboy, who pops up like the Chucky doll when he’s least expected demanding his owed two dollars. Not only that, but John also has a tendency to get accosted by two Japanese drag racers, one of whom talks just like Howard Cosell. Luckily, there’s a new girl (Diane Franklin) his age next door, a French exchange student who’s stuck with the world’s worst host family – so awful that she prefers to pretend that she can’t speak English. When John and Diane get together at a dance, an attraction forms, and soon Diane is helping John renovate his old car and encouraging John when he challenges Aaron to a ski race. In the latter, John is also cheered on by his wacky best friend (Curtis Armstrong) who likes to snort substances easily found around the house. The outcome of the movie isn’t a real surprise, although there is an unexpected ski pole duel at the end. It is, unsurprisingly, upbeat, but it’s just what John and Diane deserve.

John Cusack reportedly disliked “Better Off Dead,” at the time it was made, but years later he softened and admitted that it wasn’t that bad. The movie was also parodied in an episode of “South Park,” entitled “Ass-pen,” in which the four characters on a ski vacation stumble into a dilemma straight out of an eighties’ teen movie. The movie does have a few situations that may require explaining to this generation (i.e. “What’s a paperboy?”), but overall, it’s still worth watching.

 

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