In "Better Off Dead," high schooler Lane Meyer (John Cusack) loses his girl Beth (Amanda Wyss) to the captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). His buddy Charles (Curtis Armstrong), though, has a plan for Lane to win her back: he must ski K12, the highest peak in the range.
Will Lane ski K12? Will he win back Beth? Or will he find happiness with a French exchange student (Diane Franklin) instead?
Well, I didn't much care whether Lane skied K12, and neither, apparently, did the director, one Savage Steve Holland. A 25-year-old animator, he's blithely uninterested in structure -- he's making a live-action cartoon.
There's nothing wrong with gag-based comedies -- that's what the Sennett comedies were, and that's what "Airplane!" was, too -- but the gags in "Better Off Dead" aren't all that inventive. Oh, "Better Off Dead" has its moments -- in particular, a Chinese drag-racing duo who learned their English from watching Howard Cosell on "Wide World of Sports" -- but it's mostly the usual gross-out fare: inhaling Jello through a straw; fat kid; girl with dental retainer; sticking Q-Tips in nose, ears, mouth.
Holland likes to use a lot of distorting, wide-angle lenses, and the movie can be visually inventive; he uses a lot of long takes -- he really is making a cartoon. But if Holland wants to make live-action cartoons, why bother with structure at all? The lip service he pays to the story here just slows everything down, as do the rock 'n' roll montages and skiing sequences.
Mired in this is Cusack ("The Sure Thing"), an unusually adept verbal comedian not so adept (to his credit) at this kind of slapstick. Miring it further is David Ogden Stiers (as Lane's father), a spongy-faced actor with an almost preternatural ability to turn the ordinary into the routine.
Better Off Dead, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some profanity.