John Hughes had a generous heart, but Savage Steve Holland had a more evolved sense of humor. Where writer-director Hughes gave us Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong, writer-director Holland upended expectations in Better Off Dead... with a local Asian drag racer who does a spot-on Howard Cosell. Better Off Dead... is full of such goofy ironies, and while it ain't Molière, it is a pretty great entry in the teen-comedy genre.
Better Off Dead... also has the distinction of being one of the very first films to put John Cusack in the lead. Cusack plays Lane Meyer, whose popularity at Greendale High School plummets when he's dumped by his dream girl Beth (Amanda Wyss). The film traces his attempts to win Beth back or wean himself from his obsession with her—whichever comes first. Taking a step further from Harold and Maude, Better Off Dead... includes a few aborted suicide attempts on Lane's part (hence the title), but they are halfhearted and played with a light touch as satire of the hormonal drama of the teen age. Though it's a dicey area, suicide being no laughing matter to those who have experienced it, Holland's film positions itself to tell despondent teens that they're not alone and that this too shall pass. One way this may pass for Lane can be found in his foreign-exchange-student neighbor Monique Junot (Dianne Franklin), who quickly decides she would rather hang out with Lane than the socially awkward son (Dan Schneider) of her host parent.
Holland is charmingly tuned in to the absurd, and dated cocaine jokes aside, Better Off Dead... holds up surprisingly well. Holland keeps a number of fruitful running jokes aloft via the kooky characters, including a hilariously menacing paperboy ("I want my two dollars!"), Lane's stealth-genius eight-year-old brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), their neglected, experimental-cook mother (Kim Darby), and their put-upon father (David Ogden Stiers: well played, sir), who makes pathetic attempts to reach his son with hip language that skews into malapropisms. Curtis Armstrong gives good sidekick as Lane's best bud, and Vincent Schiavelli and Taylor Negron have funny cameos as an ironically popular teacher and a mailman who both have designs on Beth, much to Lane's chagrin. Through it all, Cusack makes a typically engaging lead, his own sense of comic timing already well defined. What truly dates Better Off Dead... is its positioning of women solely in relation to the men around them (not a problem for John Hughes), but at least the smart-cookie Monique has the sense both to put Lane on track and fix his car. Sounds like a keeper.
Better Off Dead... makes its Blu-ray debut with a surprisingly good-looking transfer from Paramount's CBS Blu-ray division. The video transfer can be commended for not trying to scrub away the film grain, which is a bit thicker than modern eyes are used to, but not at all unpleasant. Aside from some variability in the source (the occasional soft shot), the image is stable, and I was never distracted by dirt and scratches. Color and contrast are spot-on, compression artifacts are held at bay, and detail takes a noticeable step up from standard def. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix can be a bit harsh due to its abnormally high volume setting, but distractions like overproduced special effects seem to be endemic to the original soundtrack; that the track is lossless is a win, but otherwise there isn't much to say for this mix. The only bonus feature is the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:33, HD), but fans of the film will probably still find this a worthwhile investment for the improved picture quality.
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