Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead is an anarchic gift of a comedy. Nominally, it revolves around teenager Lane Myer, played by John Cusack, as he sinks into a pit of despair after his girlfriend Beth Truss, played by Amanda Wyss, breaks up with him. In an effort to win her back, he prepares to ski the K-12, a nearby mountain peak that has only ever been conquered by Roy Stalin, the school bully, played by Aaron Dozier. Yet Lane soon finds himself falling for French exchange student Monique Junot, played by Diane Franklin, who teaches him to manage himself on the slopes. All of this takes place against the backdrop of Lane’s family life – father Al, played by David Ogden Stiers and mother Jenny, played by Kim Darby, who rotate from one harebrained scheme to the next, and only add to his sense of sliding out of control.
Despite this narrative, however, Better Off Dead quickly fractures into a series of sketches, interspersed with semi-autonomous montage and music video sequences. These constellate around two spaces that together drive the action and provide a trajectory in lieu of a traditional narrative. On the one hand, and most pervasively, we have suburbia, which is where most of the film unfolds. Holland’s view of the suburbs lies somewhere between Heathers and John Waters, and is brittle above all else, producing waves of grating and unwieldy physical comedy. At one point, Lane grinds chalk across a blackboard with such biting friction that another student’s hair rises in shock, and this seems to be the way that Better Off Dead wants to impact its viewers as well. The effect could quickly become nauseating were it not for the fact that every character feels cushioned and protected by their own private pocket of weirdness, producing a countervailing melancholy that anticipates Donnie Darko’s offbeat nostalgia for the 80s. This, it often feels, is the world that film recalls.
This bizarre brittle aesthetic quickly converges around two staples of the nuclear family home – food and television. Food here is presented as the cutting-edge of inane postmodern consumption, taking over architecture, or becoming a new kind of architecture, a site where the cultural shifts of the 80s are rendered peculiarly visible. We’re first introduced to the Myers via their kitchen, where Jenny cooks blue goop as Al moves through a series of leaking cereal packets. Lane works at (and is eventually fired from) Pig Burger, a local diner, where his dream of a comically enormous patty gives way to a Claymation sequence of a burger playing a guitar, like a deranged McDonalds commercial. There’s a sense here that cinema simply cannot extricate itself from fast food or the advertising infrastructure that bolsters it.
That interdependence of food and media gives way to the second obsession of Better Off Dead – television. There’s a general fixation on inane media here, encapsulated in a scene when Lane maniacally surfs the car radio before ripping it out and throwing it out the window, but this doesn’t rival so much as transform the television into a more networked and interactive interface. Sometimes the television mimics reality, as in the image of a fire that “burns” in Lane’s fireplace, and sometimes it produces its own reality, as in the case of Yee Sook Ree and Chen Ree, played by Yuji Okumoto and Brian Imada, a pair of Korean immigrants, one of whom can only speak English in the dulcet Southern tones of Howard Cosell, since they learned the language through endless reruns of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
These two worlds of food and media come together over the TV Dinners that Lane receives as an eccentric Christmas present, which he uses in turn to woo Monique at his burger restaurant. In the first truly romantic sequence of the film, Holland permits himself to lean into a lush 80s synthscape without too much irony, as Lane pulls out his sax, and starts playing in time to the soundtrack, only for the focus to shift back to the Claymation hamburgers, who also appear to be dancing on a date together. As the epicentre of the film, this sequence evokes the connective tissue of suburbia breaking down, propelling us back out into the brittleness of a world with no lubrication, a world that is all friction, gears grinding at every turn. Gradually, this shifts Better Off Dead towards the fringes of realism, initially in the recourse to science fiction tropes, from a book entitled “How to Build Your Own Space Shuttle from Household Items” to a scene in which Lane places martian-like earbuds in all his facial orifices. However, this alterity quickly exceeds science fiction and instead infuses every scene with a stranger latent violence, as if anyone or everyone here could be a nascent serial killer.
However, even this is not commensurate to the film’s fractious energy, which finds its final and fullest expression in its dark comic centrepiece – all the brittle ways that Lane attempts suicide after his breakup with Beth. This was marketed as the core signature of the film, which still has a somewhat notorious reputation as a suicide comedy, and yet the scenes in which Lane tries to take his own life don’t feel like efforts to be edgy so much as a natural extension and fulfilment of the film’s own aesthetic. Suburbia, with Lane as its figurehead, appears to be continually involuting and self-destructing here, fragmenting the film into a series of fractured set pieces that are mirrored in the jagged rhythms of Lane’s school dance, poised halfway between disco and post-punk. Yet alongside these suicidal impulses there is also a longing for a more fluid kind of space, whether in Lane’s desire to do up an old car that has been idle in his driveway for months, his grudging respect for Stalin’s “well-oiled machinery,” or in the manic lines of flight the film charts away from each cacophonous disaster that unfolds, as if determined to keep one step ahead of them, and avoid the full fallout of them.
It’s here that we encounter the second space of the film – the enormous mountain range that exists in incongruous proximity to Lane’s baking suburban sprawl. Only here does the film find its fluidity, albeit a precarious fluidity, in the trajectory down the K-12, the biggest peak in the range. Stalin is the only person to ever ski the slope and live, so Lane sets out to conquer it himself. Yet these mountains never exactly feel like a real space, since Holland never elaborates any connective tissue between them and suburbia, or explains how two such vastly different landscapes can exist so close together. Even in California this is unrealistic, and so the mountain gradually comes to feel like a hyperreal space, a virtual enclave into which Lane escapes to calm the brittle intrusions of the everyday suburban world. He has the sensibility of a gamer who retreats into computerised alpine vistas, except that the technology hasn’t caught up yet, meaning that the mountains exist only as a vague promise of a third space that is both beyond material culture and nested within mass culture. Insofar as the film can approximate that space, it is only through continuous restless juxtaposition, ruptures in the spacetime fabric of cinema that finally constellate around the montage sequence that transplants Lane and Stalin from suburbs to mountains for their climactic race.
Up to a certain point, this race appears to play out in naturalistic space and time, even if Holland ironises it somewhat with a nod in the direction of Rocky. Lest we confuse this hyperspace for space, however, Better Off Dead ends with a spatial parable and summary of the two worlds with which it has presented us. In a quintessential 80s tableau, we appear to end with Lane and Monique poised on the surface of his restored car, a saxophone by his side, in the middle of Dodger Stadium, as the camera pulls back to an epic cosmicity. Here is the fluid navigation of space that the film has sought, and yet as a child wheels towards the couple on a bike, the effect collapses, and we are back at Lane’s house, which erupts into flames from the inside, as his younger brother’s spaceship, composed of household items, bursts from the roof in overt CGI. And between those two tableaux lie the push and pull of 80s teen life: the picaresque attraction of a world that seems cluttered to the brim with material objects, and the more austere and sublime fantasy of a fluidity of hyperspace just beyond it.