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Better Off Dead
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
In the midst of the juvenile-teen-sex-comedy-crammed 1980s, Savage Steve Holland came up with a surprisingly humorous and bright-noggin'd gem that shone forth from out of a celluloid river of fool's gold. Better Off Dead is a joy of a movie that holds up despite it very 80s feel—from its costumes to its hair styles to its music—and that's a testament mostly to John Cusack, who's very near the top of his game here.
Cusack portrays Lane Meyer, a typical bright-futured teenaged nice guy who's stuck inside a hopelessly clueless family and ridiculously obsessed with the lovely but empty-inside Beth (Amanda Wyss, who played the doomed Tina in A Nightmare on Elm Street). Beth proceeds to immediately dump Lane for Roy, the captain of the high-school ski team. Devastated, Lane becomes comically suicidal (imagine a silly take on Harold and Maude), but finds himself drawn back into life by the suddenly interesting French foreign-exchange student Monique, who has her own hands full with her amazingly insipid host family. Lane's best buddy Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong) also offers his own hilarious brand of friendship and support. And although Lane's parents (David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby) are baffled by their teen son's life, they provide moments of sheer comic brilliance.
Better Off Dead is best reviewed as a series of comic highlights than a cohesive story. The film is crammed with delightful moments and quotable dialog. So here are just few of the myriad pleasures of Better Off Dead (...beware of spoilers…).
...home cooking from Mom...
...a little brother's private science projects...
...the amazing Curtis Armstrong, saying "Buck up, little camper"...
...Chinese dragracers versed in Howard Cosell English...
...high-schoolers going gaga for geometry...
..."Do you mind if I ask Beth out?"...
...stacks of TV dinners on Christmas morning...
..."That's a real shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy like that"...
...musings on the K-12 mountain: "Go that way. Really fast. If something gets in your way…turn"...
...Ricky's dramatic fog-machine entrance to the school dance...
...vengeful paperboys, stalking through suburbia and through snow...
...claymation rockstar cheeseburgers grooving to Van Halen...
...ski-pole fencing for the love of a beautiful French girl...
...and most of all, John Cusack as Lane Myer...
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Paramount presents Better Off Dead in a reasonably effective anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Although you'll notice significant grain and a general 1980s softness, sharpness is more than adequate, and detail reaches impressively into backgrounds. Colors appear fairly accurate, if a tad washed out. The print isn't pristine, but the damage isn't enough to distract.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix leaves much to be desired. Fidelity is poor, offering very limited dynamic range and depth. Dialog is brittle and flat. Even the music suffers from too much treble and insufficient body. The original elements have definitely not held up over time.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Better Off Dead is an extremely funny film that deserves more impressive DVD treatment. The image quality is adequate, but the lackluster sound presentation and lack of supplements is truly disappointing. Consider this DVD a rental, particularly considering the high price.