A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
- Parents say
- Kids say
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?
- In theaters: October 11, 1985
- On DVD or streaming: July 16, 2002
- Cast: Curtis Armstrong, David Ogden Stiers, John Cusack, Kim Darby
- Director: Savage Steve Holland
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 98 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
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