There's No Stalgia Like Nostalgia, Part Two
Presented here is the second in a series of letters to myself regarding the movies that shaped my worldview. Thanks to the fine folks at The Emmett Brown Institute for Federal Time/Space Studies and their “Travel Logs” program, I’ve been given the chance to chop through the time/space continuum and communicate with any previous version of Me of my choosing.
Today, I’m writing to little 9-year-old Ian on Christmas Eve, 1986—mere hours away from his discovery of the groundbreaking classic comedy Better Off Dead. Enjoy!
So, you haven’t given up the late-night snooping-around-the-Christmas-tree thing, huh? You really should get that impulsiveness under control, ‘cause it’s going to wreak havoc on your finances later on. By the year 2004, your apartment walls will look like Pop Culture threw up on them; five years after that, you’ll look back at photos from that era and wonder how your eyes didn’t fall out of your head, staring a movie posters and action figures day in and day out.
You were probably expecting a letter from Santa, but you’ll have to settle for me instead; which is to say, you’ll have to settle for yourself, talking to you from the future. Look, if you’re going to hold on to this Jolly Old Man fantasy for another year, surely you can make room for time travel.
I know you’re confused, but don’t wake up Dad. He didn’t write this.
I’m writing to let you know about a choice you’ll need to make tomorrow. You’ll be up before the sun—certainly before Mom and Dad—flipping channels for something good to watch. You’re going to be really tempted to watch Brain Games, followed by Romancing the Stone (again). But I’m begging you, for the sake of our future sense of humor and the aesthetics of our wedding, please turn on HBO at 6am and watch a movie called Better Off Dead.
It’s not a horror movie (by the way, we’re still reeling from that time you watched the end of Friday the 13th Part 3 last year, when you got up just a bit too early for Saturday morning cartoons).
I just realized you probably don’t know what “aesthetics” means. Let me re-phrase that last bit: “For the sake of our future sense of humor and what our wedding will look like…”
Make sense? Good.
Better Off Dead stars your soon-to-be new hero, John Cusack. He plays Lane Meyer, an awkward teenager whose girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss) breaks up with him in order to date a ski champion named Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier). This sends Lane into a downward spiral of depression, and he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to kill himself. Did I mention this is a comedy?
Lane befriends Monique (Diane Franklin), a French foreign-exchange student living with his across-the-street neighbors, the Smiths: Ricky (Dan Schneider), a chubby pervert, and his overbearing monster of a mother (Laura Waterbury). Monique teaches Lane that there are things worth living for, like discovering new love and restoring a hot, classic Camaro that Beth had convinced him to buy.
This probably sounds really boring, and you think you’ve seen this movie about ten times before. But I assure you, there’s nothing in the world as unique and hilarious as Better Off Dead. I’m writing to you twenty-six years after it came out, and there’s still nothing that can touch it. The main selling point is something called “absurdity.”
Conventional comedies don’t have fantasy sequences involving claymation hamburgers rocking out to David Lee Roth’s “Everybody Wants Some”; nor will you ever see a Christmas morning where the best presents are TV dinners and aardvark-fur jackets. From the Japanese street racers narrating their own races as Howard Cosell through roof-mounted loudspeakers to Barney Rubble asking Lane if he could ask out Beth, Better Off Dead is packed with so much nonsensical hilarity that your mind will be blown—if I recall correctly, you’ll spend your own presents-opening ritual stuck in a giggle fit; one that will never truly go away.
You also won’t be able to shake the movie’s title song, “One Way Love (Better Off Dead)” for about a decade, and when you meet E.G. Daily (who performs it in the film) in twenty years, the immovable smile on your face will render you barely capable of speech.
Better Off Dead will become your humor litmus test, but it will also help determine the course of your life. In the next decade or so, you’re going to have a series of girlfriends (yes, it’s true; calm down) who will be great in their own special ways. But you’ve got to hold out for the one who loves this movie as much as you do. Let me be very clear: When I use the word “love”, I don’t mean “like”. The one you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with will not only know every joke and sight gag back and forth, she’ll also quote lines to you whenever an occasion calls for it. You’ll exchange knowing smiles whenever someone says “two dollars” or “tentacles”.
This girl will be so hip and so on your wavelength that she’ll marry you in a movie theatre with “Better Off Wed” below your names on the marquee (she’ll also appreciate the boy and girl hamburger people you’ll sculpt as wedding cake toppers). I’m not going to tell you which girl will be The One. Because as painful and wonderful as your test-run relationships will be; as much as you’ll want to marry some girls and kill yourself over others; there’s a great one waiting for you, who won’t look at you cross-eyed when you tell her she likes raisins.
(Sorry for all the mushy stuff. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m pulling double-duty with this letter.)
So, yes, if you’re looking for some real brain games, watch Better Off Dead tomorrow. And go back to sleep!