Seeing Better Off Dead is like looking at your high school yearbook picture--it's disturbingly familiar. Perhaps it's the plot of boy loses girl, boy gets suicidally upset, boy finds substitute in French exchange student, boy feels better. This a hybrid of Risky Business and Private Lessons.
And borrowings from Risky Business abound. The theft is evident immediately in the Tangerine Dream style opening score. By the time we hear the "Mannish Boy" of Muddy Waters accompanying the sports car's emergence from the house garage and the Epicurean philosophizing of Curtis Armstrong, who is again teaching his friend how to say "What the fuck," we know we are witnessing full-scale felony.
A leftover from another teen comedy, John Cusack, as Lane Meyer, seems uniquely inappropriate after his boisterous role in The Sure Thing to play someone on the down side of teen life. In another dimension, where teen comedies all have good script writers, the pairing of Cusack and Armstrong might have been relatively magical, something like proto-Belushi meets proto-Murray. Instead, they are confined to gags that only a teen messiah could save, and only a child could enjoy. Hopefully, Cusack's role in the Disney flick The Journey of Natty Gann turns out better for him.
Not that some of the jokes aren't funny. The teacher who rules as a pseudo-intellectual guru over his class is hilarious. So is Lane's battle against the unrequited love songs that invade his car stereo. These gags play on the real perceptions of teenage life in a surreal way, like the better moments of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But most of the gags are borrowed from the more common genre of teenage film. They are simple improbable cartoon slapstick like when Lane's brother builds a space shuttle, or when Lane's food walks away from him. This brand of humor is only remotely cute, and not at all funny.
David Ogden Stiers, the stodgy Harvard grad in MASH, is Lane's father in this ill-starred effort, which, along with Creator makes two outrageously bad movies in a row for this former TV actor looking for work. Like other teen parents in film, the Meyers are portrayed as pathetic, uncomprehending creatures--pleasing propaganda for young audiences. Their roles only approach realism when Stiers is reading books on teenage communication and drug use which are hopelessly inaccurate.
One thing a teen film of this dubious caliber needs is a few knockout women to sell it to male adolescents. It is to this film's credit that while the female objects of Lane's attention are nice looking and just plain nice people, they are nothing to pin up on the wall. More realism like this would have been great, but with just this particular bit of the real world, the film will not be running long. As a side note, it's interesting how the good guy/girl is always a brunette, and the bad superficial guy/girl is always blond. What penetrating moral lessons this film and others like it have!
One disturbingly funny, stupid gag that runs through the film is Mrs. Meyer's cooking. She is able to create life from the leftovers that she piles in the stewpot, lifeforms that are definitely not meant to be. Clearly, Mrs. Meyer's cuisine is a metaphor for Savage Steve Holland's leftover film, which is indeed (I gotta say it) better off dead.
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