A Few Laughs Over the Summer

Savage Steve Holland must have had one strange adolescence. Of course, you've got to figure anyone who calls himself "Savage" probably was never destined for a career as a commodities broker.

Holland wrote and directed a pair of slight-but-pointed teen- Angst comedies, "Better Off Dead" and "One Crazy Summer," that are flecked with wit and original directorial touches. Starring in both is John Cusack, who's made his leap into the stratosphere of serious actors with his role in "The Grifters," presumably never to look back at silly youth flicks like this.

"Better Off Dead," Holland's debut feature, is the better of the two, but both look back at teen life in a fresh and often stabbingly funny way. Holland reflects not from the vantage point of a wizened adult, not with the objective gaze of a scholar, but from the twisted, tortured pimple's-eye-view of how life must have seemed at times to every kid who ever awkwardly grunted and groaned his or her way to adulthood.

In both, Cusack plays an average kid who has to contend with the jocks, the babes and the nerds around him. But Holland never--well, rarely--resorts to cheap stereotypes that usually torpedo this genre. (His unnecessarily savage skewering in "Dead" of an overweight neighborhood kid, even if he is a chump, is one gross exception. But even this character gets a sympathetic turn in the spotlight in a fleeting "Saturday Night Fever" parody.)

Cusack's character in both films also is a closet cartoonist, which allows Holland to insert some of the most wicked animated interludes this side of Matt Groening.

In "Dead," Cusack plays a second-rate skier who delivers the expected comeuppance to the school's studly hotshot ski-team leader. In "One Crazy Summer," which includes a brilliant supporting performance by comic Bobcat Goldthwaite as Godzilla, he helps the irresistible Demi Moore out of a sticky financial situation while he's holding down a summer job on posh Nantucket island.

Who could fail to relate to Cusack's frustration when his girlfriend dumps him for the hotshot skier, simply because the latter's more popular? (This tragedy, of course, presents only one solution: Suicide, hence the title.) And who could resist sharing in his glee when one of his cartoon creatures devours Mr. Olympics in a single, slurpy gulp?

Though there are predictable sequences, they transcend the usual limitations of teen comedies (if not by leaps and bounds) largely because of Cusack's likability and Holland's clever writing. As Times movie critic Kevin Thomas once wrote, "Holland-plus-Cusack adds up to the Harold Lloyd of the '80s."

These certainly aren't going to wind up alongside "Rebel Without a Cause" or "American Graffiti" as definitive filmic portraits of a generation in transition. But either would make an adequate substitute some evening when "The Simpsons" is showing reruns.

"Better Off Dead" (1985, 98 minutes) and "One Crazy Summer" (1986, 93 minutes), written and directed by Savage Steve Holland. Both rated PG.

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