Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #10: Better Off Dead (1985)

After nearly five months of going through the worst films, Ponty and I have decided to launch a list of what we consider the best films of all time.

I don’t know about Ponty’s list, but for me, I’m treating this list partially as my favorite films of all time.  As much as I love writing movie reviews, I’m no professional critic, so what I consider to be the “best” might also just happen to coincide heavily with what I consider to be my “favorite” movies.  I’m sure there are technical and artistic grounds on which films could be deemed “better” than others, or the “best” compared to other films, but I’m not necessarily diving into those flicks.

Which brings me to this week’s pick for the #10 ten slot (although, honestly, it could be higher; ironically, it’s here at #10 just because I watched it recently):  the 1985 absurdist romantic comedy Better Off Dead:

My older brother introduced me to this surrealist flick when I was in college, and I immediately loved the zany characters and setting.  Better Off Dead follows the life of Lane Myer after his girlfriend, Beth, dumps him for the hotshot captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin (what a great name for a villain).

Myer, we learn in the opening shots of the film, is completely obsessed with Beth—his room is festooned with photographs of her—so he takes the breakup particularly hard, especially when everyone from his math teacher to his mailman asks if it’s okay to ask her out.  He contemplates suicide as a way to end his misery, but his various attempts end hilariously in failure (indeed, he almost always decides against suicide at the critical moment, only for some other character to trigger the mechanism of his preferred method by accident).

In addition to his breakup and his failed attempts at taking his own life, Myer is beset by enemies on every side:  the aforementioned Stalin; his father, complaining about his jalopy Camaro; his shut-in, overweight neighbor, Ricky; his cigar-chomping boss at Pig Burgers; a tenacious paperboy demanding “two dollars” in payment; a genius kid brother who picks up trashy women and builds rocket ships using mail-order books; and two Asian street racers, one of which learned English by listening to Howard Cosell on The Wide World of Sports.  Even his closest friend, the drug-obsessed Charles De Mar, offers up only dubious advice, especially when it comes to Myer facing down his greatest opponent:  the imposing ski slope The K-12.

But Lane finds encouragement from an unlikely source:  the French foreign exchange student Monique Junot, who is living with awkward shut-in Ricky Smith and his loud-mouthed mother, Mrs. Smith.  Mrs. Smith apparently brought Monique in to be a girlfriend to her shy, obese, piggish son, so Monique hides behind a feigned ignorance of the English language in an attempt to avoid his “tentacles” (which she mispronounces as the medical term for a man’s genitalia).

With Monique seeing Lane’s potential and pushing him to succeed, Lane enjoys a renewed lease on life, repairing his old Camaro and training to compete with Stalin in a race down the K-12.  The two, naturally, begin to fall in love, conflicting with Lane’s desire to win back Beth.

Ultimately, Lane skis the K-12 on one ski (after Charles De Mar breaks one on accident—d’oh!), beating Stalin narrowly.  Beth runs back to him, but he breaks free from her kisses to rescue Monique, who Ricky is carrying away.  The two engage in a sword fight with their skis, which Lane wins.  He and Monique ride off in his Camaro, with the final scene of the film featuring the couple at Dodgers Stadium (with the paperboy riding towards them, still after his two bucks).

On paper, it’s a very typical storyline for a teen romantic comedy.  But what sets Better Off Dead apart is the sheer absurdity of its humor.

Better Off Dead takes all the nightmarish awkwardness of being a teenager amplifies it to eleven.  Lane’s mother is clueless to the point of stretching credulity, and concocts improvised dishes that often take on a life of their own.  His paperboy hounds him relentlessly—maniacally!—for two dollars.  His best friend snorts pure snow from his top hat.  Two Asian street racers narrate his life and foibles.  Lane accidentally disrobes the popular cheerleader who is dating the entire basketball team—and on and on.

Meanwhile, Lane dives into various flashbacks and visions, including animated ones.  One of the iconic scenes from the film is when Lane, working alone at Pig Burger, drifts into a claymation dreamscape, during which a hamburger woos a lady hamburger while singing the Van Halen song “Everybody Wants Some!!

Better Off Dead is a film that must be seen to be appreciated fully.  It’s amazing how a film about a teenager attempting suicide never feels heavy, and how Lane’s various attempts are played for laughs—and never insensitively!  Wikipedia calls it a “black comedy,” but it never feels like one.  It’s almost like we as audience members know that Lane doesn’t mean it, and that he isn’t going to succeed.

After all, that would be a waste of a perfectly good white boy.

5 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #10: Better Off Dead (1985)

  1. Thanks mate. 🙂

    I’ve never heard of this film but will have a look and see if it’s something we might be interested in, to add to our collection. It sounds a lot like the zany eighties type – disenchanted kids, distant parents, with all the hilarity of a John Belushi movie. Weekend at Bernie’s had a similar vibe though I reckon, from what you describe, they’re probably as far apart as chalk and cheese.

    My top 10 will be similar. Favourites but still great movies. My first pick is a childhood favourite and something that I still love to watch. I’ll send it off before we go away. From Mon 12th Sept to Friday 16th Sept, I won’t be posting anywhere at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really quite good. It takes all the predictable ingredients and gives them a charming, humorous twist. I almost wrote “slightly dark” in there along with the charming and humorous, but it really doesn’t play that way at all (that, or I just have a high threshold for the macabre). It’s really fascinating how tonally it does not come off as dark or disturbed at all, given the protagonist actively attempts suicide. Indeed, I always felt like the suicide angle was a fairly small part of the film, even with it named _Better Off Dead_.

      Safe travels, my friend! I’ll make sure to get it scheduled for Monday, 12 August 2022.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And 80s haircuts too! I remember having spikes in mine as a kid. Looked absolutely absurd, like a slimline HB pencil where the rubber at the end had been chewed to within a inch of its life. We’ve all been there. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Just watched the trailer. Both Tina and I laughed – we’ll most likely pick it up. Crikey, John Cusack hasn’t aged a day! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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