Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead... is a thoroughly compelling but indisputably odd bird, operating under the guise of a seemingly standard '80s teenage comedy that ventures into much more bizarre, unconventional territory than the likes of John Hughes' comparatively grounded creations. Scratch out the verbose reflections and sentimental moments; instead, imagine botched suicide attempts, stop-motion cheeseburgers, and goops of slimy teal raisin casserole served over a family dinner, while an obsessive high-school guy gets used to his girlfriend dumping him for someone better-looking and more popular -- and a better skier. While the inventiveness Holland embodies occasionally stretches its wacky boundaries beyond what the clear-cut premise can handle, reveling in its often riotous eccentricity earns the director some leeway for roughness around the edges.
See, Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is obsessed. There's really no way of getting around it: he's blinded with mania over his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), shown by the glut of photos adorning every inch of his room. So when she ditches him for ace slope-runner Roy (Aaron Dozier), the captain of their high school's skiing team who can blitz down the ever-so-dangerous K-12 course without a hitch, he's sent into a tailspin. Not just any tailspin; he attempts suicide every chance he gets, and when his attempts aren't panning out, he dodges his father's (David Ogden Stiers) stern calls to date other girls and to fix up his tarp-adorned '67 Camaro. While dealing with the universe's scheming to keep him alive just so he can see his ex-girlfriend parading around with her new hunk, a melancholy Lane starts to take notice of the French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) living across the street -- who, oddly, doesn't speak a bit of English, much to the aggravation of her peculiar host family.
Obviously getting its name from Lane's glum state, Better Off Dead... also takes a daring angle in poking fun at the extent of the teen's "moppishness", running the gamut of grief -- from flinging himself off a bridge to hotboxing in the garage with car exhaust -- as it generates deadpan wit. The humor flirts with darkness because of it, occurring alongside the brutish bullying from Roy at school and his family's seemingly cold-shouldered reaction to his break-up, yet the script blithely plays with his comedic last-minute ramblings and trepidation for a mix of ridiculousness and empathy as he rears back from ending it all. Holland isn't interested in a naturally solemn depiction of Lane's grief, instead using his mindset as a springboard for John Cusack to exert his quirky charm through a compilation of oddly macabre situations and absurdist humor.
Instead, Better Off Dead... operates the way I'd expect some artists' brain cells would if looked at underneath a microscope, which makes sense considering Holland's animation background. Scatterbrained, creatively unruly yet indisputably magnetic, he slaps together a collage of inventive situational oddities into a colorfully hectic and inconsistent rush, fully content in having little direction other than to hurl gags at the audience. It jolts wildly between aims; odd meals dreamed up by Lane's loony mother mix with a French-speaking girl warding off the creepy smothering from her host family, while a bloodthirsty paperboy (Demian Slade) stalks Lane and demands payment -- "Two dollars!" -- like a kneecapping thug. While these quirks recur over and over and consistently meet foreseeable ends, sometimes frustratingly so, their unconventional bizarreness always finds a way to mesmerize on some level.
Though boisterous and fragmented, Holland's chaos isn't just purely pointless gags. Better Off Dead... fits the mold of the '80s teenage fare, sure, with a misunderstood loner losing his girl to a hunkier guy, while he rediscovers his self-worth after dragging through break-up muck and pondering how to win her back. Yet while using Holland's creative larks as unique distractions in Lane's mind, where we're constantly left wondering exactly what's in his noggin and what's actually taking place in the Meyer household, it's also a clever, offbeat portrayal of a thwarted teen's anxiety. And it really doesn't matter what's real, surreal, or unreal; from a classroom full of students cheerfully fawning over their math teacher (while Lane daydreams of losing his virginity to Beth) to the last, fated race down the K-12 slope, Holland's relentlessly inventive escapade through teenage angst simply has a lot of raucous fun.
Video and Audio:
Better Off Dead... arrives from Paramount in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC encode that delivers a clear, colorful, yet flawed presentation of Savage Steve Holland's visually quirky comedy. Coarse grain rears its head at a few points, beyond that of natural film texture, while dust and debris frequently pop up in the print, which renders a harsher filmic texture that one might expect. The other attributes in the transfer outweigh these issues, though, with a few points of crisp detail -- the dancing hamburgers and hand-drawn animation, stripes in clothing, the stony texture against the bridge, and some wood grain -- that give the print a nimble grasp on the naturalness in the image. The balanced contrast stays inky and appropriate, retaining detail in darkly-shaded points, while skin tones retain a natural, ample pinkness across the board. Overall, Better Off Deal looks rather satisfying, though it could easily be taken a few notches higher with more careful refinement.
Two English audio tracks accompany the high-definition image: both DTS HD Master Audio options, one a 5.1 surround option and the other a standard 2.0. Surround activity certainly stretches to the rear channels in the five-channel track -- from echoing voices in the mountains to the sound of Lane's exhaust pip dragging and lemons hitting a metal street sign -- which actually telegraphs a level of impressive audio clarity that wasn't expected. Other sound elements, like the slamming of the Myer's door, shows off the design's age, leaning towards a muffled and less-dexterous balance. The rampant dialogue sounds suitably clear, also occasionally showing hints of the film's age, while the pumping '80s music digs into the lower-frequency channel more often than expected. While not perfect, much like the visual treatment, it's a solid pair of sound offerings that pay closer attention to the laser shots, clanking of chains, the thunder and lighting and other aural delights Holland concocts. French and Spanish language tracks are also available, alongside English SDH, French, and Spanish optional subtitles.
Unfortunately, instead of any current perspective interviews or other behind-the-scenes material, all Paramount offers in the way of supplements is a Theatrical Trailer (1:32, 4x3). It's a real shame, given the creative nature of the comedy's oddness.
Savage Steve Holland created something wild with Better Off Dead.... Take a teenage boy's obsession with a girl that's just dumped him, and then mix it with a pretty uncontrollable tornado of situational and slapstick humor drawn through the eyes of the animator responsible for the "Whammy" game show's unruly mascot, and that's what you've got. John Cusack wears the peculiar sense of humor like a yellow kitchen glove, taking inventively over-the-top scenes of teenage angst and underdog awkwardness and making them his own, all while Holland dials up the oddness around him with random kinds of visual gags and outlandish caricatures. The fun factor outweighs the skeletal premise, while some extremely memorable dialogue earns quite a few laughs within the occasionally laugh-out-loud script. Paramount's Blu-ray looks and sounds suitable, but the lack of special features makes this package a bit of a bummer. Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site