Better Off Dead

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
Better Off Dead Movie Poster Image
Uneven, occasionally hilarious '80s teen comedy.
  • PG
  • 1985
  • 98 minutes

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Nobody here is very deep, and the hero's repeated attempts at suicide, though (half-heartedly) discouraged, are basically joke setups. "True" love, that is romance not based on who is the better, more popular guy/girl in homeroom, does win out at the end. Characterizations lean towards stereotypes (nerds, jocks, fatties, car-crazy Asians), but there's one girl who goes against the grain by being an ace mechanic and baseball fan, not a shallow blonde -- but she's emphatically not American, so go figure.

Violence

Reckless driving and car collisions, spills on the ski slopes, and one character beaten up (offscreen) by school athletes.

Sex

Brief talk/flashback about Lane losing his virginity to Beth (it's never clear whether or not it happened successfully) and condom use. Off-color confusion of words "testicles" for "tentacles" and "sex" for "sax" (as in saxophone). Visual joke in which a girl suddenly gets her clothes torn off down to bra and panties.

Language

Some use of "s--t," "ass," and "damn."

Consumerism

Coca-Cola and Perrier labels rather obnoxiously thrust into foregrounds. Car models and the names of several winter-sports-gear product lines are evident.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Smoking for gag effect (it causes an explosion). One character talks enthusiastically about drugs, at one point pretending that a snow-covered mountain is pure cocaine (snorting the snow to make his point). Reference to drinking and moonshine whiskey.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that some releases of this movie carry the PG-13 rating, others a PG. It's pretty mild for its type nonetheless. There is drug humor and a few sexual references and modest swearing. Reckless behavior -- on the ski slopes and drag racing in streets -- is glorified. Queasiest factor for most viewers might be the repeated depiction of (unsuccessful) teen suicide as gag pratfalls.

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User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMoniz F. April 21, 2017

Dark humor fun

This is one of those movies that I am surprised was made in the US and in the 80's no less. The humor (multiple unsuccessful suicide attempts) is dark of c... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written bybspecific1 June 15, 2020

It should be rated x

This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I didn’t laugh once. I mainly cried. My dad made we watch it and I couldn’t believe he laughed at a kid almost hanging h... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byCici25DaBest April 18, 2019

great dramedy for mature tweens

This movie is a great story and teaches some good messages and some bad messages, it shows how suicide isn't always the best alternative, and it shows you... Continue reading

What's the story?

Lane (John Cusack) is a typical teenager in a typically weird suburban northern California household (younger brother is a mad-scientist type; mom's atrocious kitchen techniques are right out of the the Addams Family, best friend is a crazed goofball). Lane adores his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), a fellow student he's been dating for six months. Straightaway she dumps him for the handsome, popular varsity ski-team champ, and Lane goes into a bad-luck tailspin. His car radio plays nothing but breakup songs, and he finds himself repeatedly humiliated in front of Beth, in and out of school. Other dudes (even a famous cartoon character!) tell him they're going to ask Beth out. The tormented Lane repeatedly tries to kill himself, but finds a promising new relationship with the proverbial girl next door -- a French-exchange student being amorously pursued by the fat "dork" son in her host family.

Is it any good?

While some critics failed it from the outset, Better Off Dead is actually a notch more upscale than most of its fellow D-grade locker-room comedies. It's gained a "cult" reputation for its clever gags (even if some haven't aged too well; anyone for a Howard Cosell parody?) and zany blend of animation and live-action. BETTER OFF DEAD graduated to theaters with a homeroomful of similar comedies (many inspired by Porky's, whose title character cameos here) fixated on teen lust, teen drugs, and teen feuds/revenge/payback. Some individual bits here are fall-down hilarious, if pretty much throwaways in a severely disjointed plotline.

A young John Cusack would have more multidimensional roles to play later in his career, and the absurdist approach to life from a bewildered adolescent's POV would be done in remarkably similar style -- but with more heart -- by TV's Malcolm in the Middle. Still, a generation of parents who grew up in the 1980s cherish Better Off Dead and might want to give it a spin again with their own offspring to see whether the humor holds up. That's if the cavalier treatment of suicide as a running joke isn't a dealbreaker.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the heartbreaks that come along with school crushes and first loves. Do you think this feature treats the topic sympathetically or just milks it for yocks? FYI, the writer-director claimed his own painful breakup as a youth inspired the comedy. What do kids think about the slapsticky teen-suicide angle, especially compared to achingly serious dramas on the subject such as Permanent Record and The Virgin Suicides? Is suicide no laughing matter, or is joking it away a good approach?

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