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  Better Off Dead French Exchange
Year: 1985
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Stars: John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Kim Darby, Demian Slade, Scooter Stevens, Diane Franklin, Laura Waterbury, Dan Schneider, Yuki Okumoto, Brian Imada, Chuck Mitchell, Amanda Wyss, Curtis Armstrong, Aaron Dozier, Vincent Schiavelli, E.G. Daily
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: When Lane Meyer (John Cusack) wakes up this morning he's looking forward, as ever, to spending time with his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) and impressing her with his skiing skills on the slopes. His father (David Ogden Stiers) is surprised to see him up so early on a Sunday morning - although he has just had a harrowing encounter with the paperboy (Demian Slade) and is soon distracted by the dubious cooking of his wife (Kim Darby). But it will not go all Lane's way today, as he has some bad news heading in his direction: Beth has lost interest in him.

Apparently if you shout "Two dollars!" at John Cusack should you see him in the street he isn't best amused, so don't do that. He may not have been too impressed with Better Off Dead, but plenty of others were and for quite a few movie buffs who like their eighties films this was something of a touchstone for teen comedies of the age. Oddly, Cusack reteamed with writer and director Savage Steve Holland the very next year for One Crazy Summer, so maybe his grumpy reputation isn't quite as close to reality as is rumoured; his performance here is viewed as an archetypal work in the oft-maligned genre.

But really if you watch it now you'll see Cusack's hangdog expression changes little throughout the movie, and even when he prevails by the end his acting hasn't altered too much. This is down to Lane being essentially the straight man to all the lunacy that Holland arranges around him, and much of it is too cute for its own good, so you can see why this is not universally admired. Yet that's the territory of cult movies, and even for the most cynical audience there should have been at least one little item of humour to raise a chuckle as it's a relentlessly good natured effort that has nothing on its mind but to cheer up its downtrodden hero.

And cheer you up as well, of course, as there were a number of talents in support to Cusack who responded to the material, in particular the scene stealing Curtis Armstong as the requisite best friend, fresh from his career-making turn in Revenge of the Nerds. His Charles De Mar character played to his strengths as he emphasised the eccentricity with the preoccupation with drugs, except we never see him snort anything except his dessert and some snow, the abundance of which he is convinced in one scene is going to make him rich. Also watch out for his priceless reaction to Lane's nemesis Stalin (Aaron Dozier) and his snidey humour.

It's Stalin (hey, subtle name) who beats Lane on the ski slopes to win Beth's heart and sends him into a deep depression where he flirts with the idea of committing suicide, although this is in no way a serious film so even that is treated as a joke. But there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon when the neighbour across the way, classmate Ricky (Dan Schneider), welcomes a French exchange student, Monique (minor eighties icon Diane Franklin) into his home (over Christmas, bizarrely) and although she is turned off by Ricky's slovenly ways, she takes a shine to Lane. If you can't see where this is heading from the second Monique appears then you're not paying attention, but this was not so much about the predictable destination and more about the journey to get there as Holland fills the screen with silly gags, from the blue-green food Lane's mother serves up, the Japanese racers who provide their own sports commentary or the animated hamburgers at Lane's place of work. It may not be hilarious, but it has its moments. Music by Rupert Hine.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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