Better Off Dead (1985)

Disclaimer up front: I would not consider this a Christmas movie, and was on the fence about writing it up at all. The holidays are never discussed until a character unexpectedly mentions it's Christmas Eve around the 35-minute mark, and less than twenty minutes later, the New Year's Eve section ends. Aside from some scattered decorations and a lot of snow, there's not really anything else to even superficially tie it back to the holidays. A few years ago, I wouldn't even have considered writing this up, but our philosophy has shifted a bit towards examining how the holidays are used in media, as opposed to only focusing on movies that meet our arbitrary definition. In addition, well... there's actually something interesting going on here with the holidays I'll get to in a moment.

First, let's talk about the movie itself. "Better Off Dead" is an '80s romantic comedy written and directed by Savage Steve Holland, creator of Eek! The Cat, and starring John Cusack as Lane, a high school student devastated after a breakup to the point he spends a solid portion of the movie contemplating (and on several occasions almost committing) suicide. On top of this, he's also being harassed by the local paperboy over $2, the bully his ex left him for is dating a skier who bullies Lane (who's also a skier, since we need to set up a race in the third act), his father won't stop harassing him about a car he bought that doesn't work, and... Honestly, I could go on - this movie isn't lacking for recurring jokes, only for laughs (sorry - this isn't going to end with a glowing recommendation or anything). 

I respect what the movie's trying to do here. Stylistically, it's extremely over-the-top, with several sequences and characters playing out more like they're existing in an animated world than live-action. Hell, there actually are a couple animated bits - one featuring sketches Lane draws that come to life, and another with stop-motion burger characters he imagines creating. Conceptually, the idea is to use absurdist, cartoonish visuals and twists to comically represent the emotional sense of alienation and confusion the main character is going through. This approach isn't unique to Better Off Dead - after all, it's basically the philosophy behind movies such as Heathers, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or even Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, though it's worth noting all of those were produced after this was released.

The issue is that, in my opinion at least, Better Off Dead doesn't find the right tone to deliver the intended effect. What's occurring is impossibly weird, but it's stuck in a world that feels dull and realistic. The disconnect makes it difficult to become immersed in what's on screen, so I was left just staring at one bizarre sequence after another.

Aside from the setup, there's not much in the way of plot until a French exchange student next door reveals she knows English to Lane (she'd been pretending not to in an attempt to avoid the amorous advances of the kid she's staying with). After that, they start to build a relationship as she helps him overcome his insecurities and fears. Eventually, he challenges the bully to a race, nearly backs out when one of his skies is destroyed, then races on one leg in part to escape the aforementioned paperboy. He wins, of course, then rejects his ex in favor of the exchange student, who he defends in a ski pole-sword fight against the neighbor.

As I mentioned earlier, the Christmas section is mostly relegated to the middle of the movie. It starts abruptly - a character mentions it's Christmas Eve as part of a joke, and the movie kicks off a number of holiday-adjacent jokes, such as Lane receiving a stack of microwave dinners from his mother as gifts. He also accidentally destroys the family garage (a recurring bit) through another botched suicide attempt just after his father reveals it's been repaired as a present to Lane's mother. There are some New Year's sequences as well, with similar farcical punchlines. This actually serves as a fairly significant moment, as it's where Lane and the exchange student meet and start to bond (though she doesn't reveal she can speak English until a later scene).

The holiday section fills a decent portion of the movie, though it falls significantly short of the 50% mark we use as an automatic qualifier as a holiday film. Likewise, there's no real thematic weight behind the holidays here - structurally, they mostly serves to establish the passage of time, and even that's a stretch. The main purpose of the holidays in the final film seems to be to justify the inclusion of a handful of jokes.

But I promised a little more, didn't I? As the movie progresses, holiday decorations appear inconsistently in various background and establishing shots. There's what appears to be half a New Year's sign when the kids are in school later, Christmas signage on a burger joint Lane works in, and lights at his house when there's an explosion related to another botched suicide attempt. None of this is at all unrealistic if we assume the remainder of the movie is playing out over January, though the timeline isn't at all clear.

In addition, it's a little odd how and when the movie includes these decorations outside of the scenes explicitly set over the holidays. The New Year's sign at school is only partially visible, the signs in the restaurant are in the background, and the lights are only visible briefly in a sequence that would have been expensive to reshoot.

All that leads me to think this might have been intended as more of a Christmas movie than it wound up being, with the holidays eventually minimized post-production. This isn't as unlikely as it might sound - holiday comedy fell out of fashion in the 1960s and - excluding those crossing over with horror, action, and R-rated films intended for adults - wouldn't really see a resurgence until the success of Christmas Vacation at the end of the '80s. There were a few attempts at kid-friendly holiday comedies (A Christmas Story being the most notable), but these weren't successful enough to convince studios the idea was a lucrative investment.

I don't know for certain that this movie was reworked to reduce the role the holidays played, but it lines up with both the presence of seemingly stray visual references through the second half of the film and the business assumptions of the era. 

Regardless, this one didn't win me over, though I certainly wouldn't describe it as awful or without merit. Several of the jokes really worked for me, particularly early on. The first few times the movie interrupted reality with a surrealist gag, I was delighted. But lacking a distinct enough tone to reinforce them, these moments offered diminishing returns for me.

Still, there is a spark of brilliance here, particularly when viewing this in the context of when it came out. This kind of humor was nothing new in parodies and farces, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any grounded comedies with similar sensibilities that came out before this.

Before wrapping up, I do want to mention a lot of the humor is of its time, which is a nice way of saying offensive. The movie isn't excessively mean-spirited, but the neighbor's weight is a repeated punchline. In addition, sexual harassment is used repeatedly as a punchline, and the main character's behavior, which borders on stalking, is supposed to be sympathetic (though also a bit pathetic). On top of all that, the movie uses stereotypes for humor, most notably with a pair of Korean characters Lane is pressured into racing throughout the movie.

This film absolutely has a devoted fanbase, so as always take my opinion with a grain of salt. But despite trying something interesting, I don't think this pulls it off, particularly when compared against countless movies that have been made in the intervening decades. There's some interesting use of the holidays here and there, but - to be clear - this isn't something I'd describe as an actual Christmas movie.