“Aww. Buck up little cowboy”
I’m not quite sure what I expected from Better Off Dead, but its complete disregard for any sense of authentic reality was a surprisingly welcome concept. Films from the 80s are notorious for their off-kilter presentation, breaking of the fourth wall, and change of pace hyper-real situations bordering on or actually portraying scenes of fantasy, yet few embrace actual cartoon aesthetic like Savage Steve Holland‘s feature debut. He injects daydreams into the action, quirky side characters popping up for no other reason than a laugh, hand drawn animation, claymation, and a casual atmosphere perfectly attuned to accept the random oddities thrown about. Sure there’s an imploded romance at the center teaching its lead there are other, better fish in the sea, but this cult classic’s true appeal lies in the absurd.
You can see signs of Holland’s humor today in Seth MacFarlane‘s work, the total unpredictability of Harold & Kumar, and the slew of Nickelodeon shows he actually helps write. His eccentric sensibilities are apparent right from the start here too as the camera pans through Lane Meyer’s (John Cusack) bedroom to show the sort of obsession at play inside this high schooler’s warped mind. Photos of his girlfriend and infatuation Beth (Amanda Wyss) collage every inch of his walls, headboard, and life to the point where he brings a framed 8×10 into the bathroom to keep him company during a shower. And with a closet full of Beth hangers wearing his clothes, it’s not hard to accept the utter destruction wrought by her leaving him for the well-coiffed ski captain Stalin (Aaron Dozier).
Riddled with halfcocked suicide attempts resulting from his math teacher, his mailman, and a cartoon character on TV asking whether they can ask Beth out, Lane is a depressed soul looking for any advantage to appear as cool as his rival. Saddled by his best friend Charles’s (Curtis Armstrong) sage advice to go big or go home, we watch him attempt to ski the dreaded K-12 peak while pining over a girl he should have cut loose months before. Luckily for him—and us—a cute French exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin) living across the street is able to light a new fire in his heart as friendship blossoms and a semblance of maturity grows. Lane must awaken from his funk to discover the joy of life at his fingertips.
But while his love triangle with Beth and Monique is the crux to his coming-of-age saga, it would barely fill a thirty-minute short let alone Better Off Dead‘s 90-minute runtime. So, alongside his misguided travels learning the “international language” come a bevy of creative asides with which to interact. True fans could probably care less about a rekindled spark with Beth, but talk about the ominous greed of a youthful paperboy or the Howard Cosell-isms of Yee Sook Ree (Yuji Okumoto) and his stoic brother Chen (Brian Imada) forever itching for a drag race and they’ll be on the floor laughing. Literally every single time Lane rolls to a stoplight, up creeps the Rees. And if there’s a lull in the action, don’t be surprised to find a kid on a bike screaming for his two dollars.
Adding to their surreal interjections come Lane’s unorthodox family and their unhinged neighbors. More fodder for laughs than any actual parental wisdom, mom Jenny (Kim Darby) can be seen cooking any number of scary concoctions when not sleepwalking obliviously through life while dad Al (David Ogden Stiers) wrestles with household pratfalls as he tries to cope with his son’s generation’s lingo and drug culture. And as far as his brother Badger (Scooter Stevens) is concerned, this genius is the best sight gag of them all. Working tirelessly in the background on laser guns and rocket ships, his level of scientific knowledge is nothing compared with the brilliant payoff coming from a book on how to “Pick Up Trashy Women”.
They all live in a hermetically sealed universe far from the one in which we exist. Between Mr. and Mrs. Meyer wearing forest animal apparel and the Smiths (Laura Waterbury‘s Mrs. and Dan Schneider‘s son Ricky) for all intents and purposes kidnapping Monique to be their love slave, Savage Steve Holland’s warped mind is on full display. His actors willingly go to eleven every take and bring the unique humor to life in a purposefully mixed bag that excels as a result of its unpredictability despite a clichéd central plot. Holland gets away with the era’s cinematic sentimentality towards 80s youth culture’s mercurial emotions because he places it inside a circus of endearing freaks. Without the constraints of reality he has the freedom to write whatever crazy situation comes to mind and we happily reap the rewards through laughter.