In “The Sure Thing,” John Cusack’s reluctant cross-country road trip companion states that if her (fake) baby-to-be is a boy, she will call him Elliot. This provokes a vehement reaction from John. “You can’t call a kid Elliot,” he berates her. “Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste.” Nick, John assures her, is a much better name. John himself would go on to play a character named Nick in the film “Tin Cup,” but in “Better Off Dead,” he plays a teen called Lane, which is the kind of moniker you’d bestow upon the uncool quiet guy who spends more time dreaming about getting a girlfriend then actually taking steps to obtain one. This pretty much sums up John’s character in “Better Off Dead,” an eighties’ comedy with the usual staples but with flashes of genius nevertheless.
When the film begins, John is drowning in teen movie tragedy with not a life preserver in sight. His girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) has just dumped him so she can date the evil Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). In keeping with movie villains, Aaron compounds his evilness by cutting John from the school ski team tryouts for no good reason, plus he’s a witness to John getting canned from his part-time fast food job (which at least saves John from risking ptomaine poisoning). John’s home life is no better – his father (David Ogden Stiers) wars with the paperboy (Demian Slade) over a disputed two dollars, as fiercely as Ralphie’s Old Man battled the stray dog pack in “A Christmas Story,” while his mother (Kim Darby) concocts scary home meals. His younger brother (Scooter Stevens), in the classic oddball sibling mode, is a genius when it comes to building stuff. With such a cast surrounding him, perhaps it’s not surprising that John considers, more than once, ending his life.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the two guys of Asian descent who routinely accost John when he’s out in his car, challenge him to race and speak only like Howard Cosell. Plus John’s only friend (Curtis Armstrong) who snorts random substances that aren’t intended to be used that way. As a result, John takes refuge in his artwork, which occasionally comes to life – something that makes as much sense as anything in his “real world.”
However, hope appears on the horizon in the form of the newly transplanted from France exchange student (Diane Franklin) who is staying with a neighbor family and having her own troubles. Her host mother and her teenage son (Dan Schneider) are so obnoxious that she pretends she can’t speak English to avoid their clutches. When she and John meet at a school dance, however, they turn out to be kindred spirits. Not only does Diane help John renovate his car, she supports him when he challenges Aaron to a ski race. In the end, John realizes that true love has been under his nose the whole time, the nefarious Aaron and Dan receive their come-uppance, and they all live happily ever after. Well, in real life, John had a vehement reaction to the film causing a rift between him and the director, but came to mellow with maturity. Perhaps he caught the “South Park” episode “Ass-pen,” and realized that satire is the sincerest form of flattery. Who knows?