A Look Back: Better Off Dead

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?


A Look Back: High Fidelity

Some novelists, as inspiring as they are, apparently have but one story only to tell – although by the time they are middle-aged and well-entrenched in their careers, they’ve become pretty good at giving their audience what they expect. When British novelist, Nick Hornby, first started writing, I assumed his niche was going to be young male narrators who need a jumpstart to become adults, but he moved on and even penned the book “Brooklyn,” which was made into a movie last year, about a young immigrant who becomes significantly less homesick after she meets a cute guy. His two early books, however, feature a similar character – in “About a Boy,” a twentysomething pretends to have a young son so he can date attractive single moms, and in “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack in the movie version, a twentysomething tries to figure out how to sustain a romantic relationship.

It’s been asked – “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” but it’s Hornby who, in the guise of “High Fidelity’s” protagonist, Rob Gordon, poses the question, “What came first, the music or the misery?…Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Like the first, I think that’s ultimately unanswerable, but it’s worth chewing over. At the beginning of the movie (the setting is changed from England to the US), John is certainly miserable both because he’s broken up with his girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) and because he works at a not-too-popular record store, which is not exactly a fast track career. In addition, his co-workers (a term here used loosely) are Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who aren’t the most scintillating company – especially when the former insists on ejecting a “sad bastard” song by Belle and Sebastian and substituting “Walking on Sunshine” shortly after John’s breakup. (The duo were originally hired to work part-time but started coming in more, and John doesn’t have the heart to correct the situation.) The upside is that they share John’s passion for incorporating various events in his life into Top X Lists. In fact, he treats the viewers to a review of his Top Five Worst Breakups, including one from when he was twelve that only lasted a few weeks. Even back then, the opposite sex was tough to figure out.

John also gets back in touch with an ex-girlfriend who invites him to a dinner party with her friends, all of whom are better at being grownups than he is. He additionally has the chance to live one of his fantasies – that he’ll date a singer/songwriter (Lisa Bonet) hoping maybe she’ll include a private joke of theirs in the liner notes of her next album. Meanwhile Iben dates Tim Robbins, who is kind of a twat; while Todd also gets a girl, and Jack starts his own band. Eventually, there is the sort of third act tragedy that happens in these movies solely to give the protagonist a mental kick and bring the destined couple back together. As a sign of his newfound maturity, John prepares a mix tape filled with – gasp – stuff that Iben will probably like, as opposed to just him. The movie does an excellent job of bringing the book to the big screen – even with the change in setting, and as Roger Ebert noted in his review, all the characters are recognizable – and mostly sympathetic even with their quirks.

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.


Movie Review: Love and Mercy

Some movies do an amazing job matching the younger actor playing the same role as the older actor, to the point where it’s no stretch of the imagination to see them as the same person (see “The Imitation Game”), but “Love and Mercy,” a biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson isn’t one. Brian Past is played by Paul Dano during the band’s golden years, and Brian Future is played by John Cusack in the eighties, when he’s trying to make a solo comeback but hindered by his psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). (There’s also a “Brian Present” character to make things more confusing, but he doesn’t come into the story much.) Each time the narrative switched, I found myself thinking that along to gaining and losing quite a bit of weight over the years, Brian might possibly also have gotten plastic surgery. But each actor does a credible job of interpreting the character, and if Cusack doesn’t look much like Young Brian, he does bring the tortured aspect out in full force. It’s easy to assume before hearing the backstory that this is someone who has suffered serious emotional torment.

“Love and Mercy” opens with a shot of Paul Dano alone in the midst of composing.  “What if I lose it and can’t get it back?  What do I do then?” he muses.  He does have his bandmates and brothers to buoy him up, but he still has to contend with his father (Bill Camp), who is bitter that he has been fired as the band’s manager and lurks on the edges of things attempting to detonate Brian’s self-esteem.  This has more severe consequences than it does with other sons because the singer is starting to hear voices and have panic attacks.  Young Brian is also struggling with the fact that although he wants to move on and create less pop-happy music, the rest of the band feels it’s necessary to say, have a few potential hit singles on their next record so they can, you know, sell records at the same volume as they have been.  But unlike so many “tortured geniuses” portrayed on screen, he’s a decent human being overall, despite the quirky outbursts, so although he has moments of selfishness, he isn’t someone you wind up loving to hate.

Twenty years and some pounds later, we see the Future Brian at a dealership buying a new car from Elizabeth Banks who has to be one of the most glamorous car salespeople ever played on screen, though the movie dealership is always curiously empty.  Hanging around is a guy described as a bodyguard, as well as a strange man who introduces himself as “Brian’s brother by another father,” and turns out to be his shrink (Paul Giamatti), who has anger management issues that may be more unhealthy than any “psychosis” of Brian’s.  (If the combined presence of Camp and Giamatti doesn’t terrify you, you are much braver than me.)  Paul and his entourage insist on following their charge around 24-7, which puts a crimp on his burgeoning intimacy with Elizabeth.  Eventually, (spoiler alert), they get rid of the shrink, and life gets much better.

As mentioned, there’s a big gap in Brian’s history, which included a breakdown period, but is alluded to by Cusack’s character, but the two time periods focused on are so interesting it doesn’t really matter.  The early one shows the bond between Brian and the other bandmates (which eventually becomes strained) and the re-creation of several of the band’s hits.  The later one depicts how hard it can be to break free of an abusive relationship (particularly when the person threatens legal action if you leave).  An afterword reports that the real Brian’s mental health did improve dramatically after firing the shrink and getting re-diagnosed (and winning Grammys couldn’t have hurt either), so there’s a real life happy ending.

A Look Back: Say Anything

The last time I visited my optometrist for my annual exam I happened to walk (a little unsteadily considering that I was temporarily blind) into the room where they have you wait while your eyes dilute from the eye drops. It’s usually full whenever I go of seniors discussing their cataract operations, but I had to smile when I heard that the piped in music system was now playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” a song that like Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and “Twist and Shout,” is irrevocably linked to an iconic eighties’ movie scene. In this case, of course, it’s the famous boombox scene where John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobbler declares his love – even though she dumped him by giving him a pen – to Ione Skye’s Diane Court.

“Say Anything” is cinematic proof (or wish fulfillment) that gorgeous girls really do want a guy with a “good sense of humor.”  Witness the moment in the movie when a girl asks Ione why she went out with John, and she simply responds, “He made me laugh.”  When a guy asks John how he got Ione to go out with him, he just responds that he asked her, which makes the guy happy. (“Thanks, that gives me hope!”)  As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that both possess a lot more to them than just the surface qualities.  Ione, who is described as being “a brain trapped in the body of a game show hostess”, may be impossibly elegant and classy, but she’s about to have her character put to the test, when her beloved father (John Mahoney), who she chose over her mom when they divorced, gets a visit from the IRS who suddenly wants to probe into his business affairs.  And John, an aspiring kickboxer, who gives a speech about not wanting to buy, sell or process anything when he’s grilled by Ione’s dad, has to decide whether or not to pursue a relationship that as Ione puts it at the end, no one thinks is going to last.

“Say Anything,” was also a revelation to me as a teen because it was probably the first teen movie I saw in which the characters attempt to behave somewhat responsibly when they attend a graduation party.  John is greeted at the door with, “Lloyd, tonight you’re the keymaster,” and while I’ve never gone to a real life party where this occurs, it always struck me as smart.  (Even the guidance counselor surrenders her key to John.)  Anyway, this means that everyone gets home safely and actually helps prolong his date with Ione, which turns out even better than they probably both expect.

For party drama, however, there’s the plight of poor Corey Flood (Lilli Taylor), a folksinger who discovers that her boyfriend Joe (Loren Dean) is a cheating douchebag and decides to fight back with the power of song.  But she’s also smart enough not to accept his “apology,” which is basically a solicitation for sex.  Forget Stef in “Pretty in Pink,” this guy is the ultimate in scummy boyfriends.  Of course, I realized, though not for years, that his primary function in the movie is to make John Cusack’s Lloyd, who is  is cut from a totally different mold, look even better.

John’s parents in the movie are away, so we don’t get to judge them (he lives with his older sister and her little boy), but we do get to pass judgment on John Mahoney’s character, who at first appears the cliché of a doting dad, complete with giving his daughter a car as a graduation gift (though it’s a stick), but who we discover has been fleecing his elderly clients for years in order to provide Ione with a comfortable lifestyle.  He’s not pure evil, but he is seriously morally flawed – and discovering this, helps make John’s and Ione’s bond even stronger.  Ultimately, John decides to accompany Ione on her trip to England, where she’s received a prestigious fellowship to study.  We last see them about to take off on an airplane.  John points out optimistically that all great success stories start with no one having faith that they’ll happen, and on that note, the movie ends.  Time will tell.