Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Hard Times

Sunday night I wrote a blog entry about Top Ten/Best of lists on my home computer, thinking that I could save it to a disk and post it at work the next day. Turns out the A drive doesn't work either, making the machine completely worthless for all intents and purposes. I may copy it down by hand and retype it again, but we'll see how ambitious I feel.

Currently I'm writing from the Westerville Public Library. The 30-minute limit--if people are waiting--may cut me short. I could pound this out from the office, but the library is a more conducive environment for writing.

I suppose it is ironic that last week I wrote about IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and how you should be happy with what you have rather than concentrating on your disappointments and aggravations. It's ironic because since then I've been dealt the great computer death, a longer work day on Monday than expected, and today's adventure, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles wait. In the BMV case, it is my fault. I lost my driver's license sometime after mid-November. Lost, as in misplaced, not revoked. I went to the BMV a week ago to get a replacement but was rebuffed because I needed my birth certificate in addition to my Social Security Number. Today I returned and ended up spending an hour there because my details or something weren't properly loading in their computer. Ugh.

So this past week has delivered a few setbacks. Nothing on the level of Jimmy Stewart's problems in the Capra film, mind you, but enough to to cause some consternation.

What a perfect time to watch BETTER OFF DEAD, right? No, I didn't decide to watch it out of a sense of self-pity. I am making good on a promise to see the film. A friend loaned me the pan-and-scan videotape, which I resisted watching, but now that I'm trying out Netflix, this seemed like an appropriate choice.

BETTER OFF DEAD (Savage Steve Holland, 1985) (DVD, 12/30/03) Grade: B-

The teen years are turbulent times, when the smallest problems are magnified to proportions of life and death matters. For Lane Myer (John Cusack), being dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) is such an event. Lane can't stop thinking about Beth and the good times they had, so her lack of interest in him leads him to thoughts of suicide. His failed and aborted attempts to kill himself just lead to more problems. Yes, this is a comedy.

That plot summary makes BETTER OFF DEAD sound a lot darker than it is in execution. Lane never appears to give serious contemplation to killing himself, and the suicide thread is a very minor part of the film. Instead, BETTER OFF DEAD is a quirky look at the adolescent mindset. The film's best moments are often those that express the hyper self-awareness and confusion of that time. A flashback to Lane and Beth's first meeting humorously illustrates how boys and girls are so fixated on themselves when flirting that everything else gets blocked out. A meaningless gesture--rubbing one's nose, in this case--makes Lane and Beth afraid that something is wrong with their appearances, and they tune out what is being said.

Most teen comedies are built around the popular students or the outcasts. Lane is a rare movie example of the regular student, someone who doesn't hang with the cool crowd but isn't sidelined with the nerds either. Cusack is perfectly cast because he brings self-assured air mixed with nervousness and doubt. He's been playing variations of this role for a long time. It isn't hard to imagine Lane being well-liked around school, making him an ideal stand-in for the viewer.

Occasionally writer-director Savage Steve Holland shakes things up in the film's universe. Although set in a nondescript northern California suburb, surrealistic flourishes, usually in the form of throwaway gags, unbalance the relative normality. For Christmas Lane's father (David Ogden Stiers) receives an aardvark fur coat, complete with a head on hood. He is told everyone will be wearing one, and soon thereafter we see that his neighbor has similar winter wear. Lane's mother (Kim Darby) cooks all manner of strange concoctions, one of which really does crawl off the plate. These weird non sequiturs serve as extensions of the confused teenage mindset. While the jokes aren't always successful, they help an overly familiar story stay interesting. You can expect that Lane will end up with the pretty French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin), but no one will would have anticipated a clay-animated sequence featuring a hamburger rocking out to Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some".

The BETTER OFF DEAD DVD looks and sounds fine, but for those who like added value, the lack of any extras, not even a trailer, is a strong deterrent when paired with the $24.99 MSRP.

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