Better Off Dead takes place in the fictional town of Greendale in "the state of Northern California" and centers on high-schooler Lane Meyer (John Cusack), whose girlfriend Beth (played by Amanda Wyss) dumps him for the arrogant and bullying captain of the high school ski team, Roy Stalin. Lane cannot get past this rejection and decides that death is the only way out of his misery. His half-hearted attempts at suicide, however, always manage to leave him alive, with comedic consequences.
Lane's family is odd: his mother (Kim Darby) is a sort of deranged Stepford wife and perhaps the world's worst cook; his genius little brother never speaks but can build laser guns and attract trashy women; and his father (David Ogden Stiers) is convinced Lane is using drugs. Lane's best friend, Charles de Marr (Curtis Armstrong) attempts to inhale everyday substances, like the nitrous oxide in a whipped cream can (known as a whippit) or snow, as if it were cocaine because he "can't even get real drugs here." The film also introduces two Korean drag racing brothers, one of whom learned English by impersonating Howard Cosell.
As Lane attempts to either end his life or win back his ex-girlfriend, he gradually gets to know a new girl: a French foreign-exchange student named Monique (played by Diane Franklin, who also starred in other '80s teen dramedies The Last American Virgin and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). She is staying with Lane's neighbors across the street, who are so annoying that she pretends she cannot speak English. Monique turns out to be a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers (as she calls them) and is a tough, confident soul. She helps Lane fix up his 1967 Camaro and rekindles Lane's confidence and his will to live through "language lessons" in the international language of love.
The climactic scene involves a ski competition against the ski jock Roy Stalin on a treacherous slope called the K-12. As the two rivals race, a persistent paperboy pursues Cusack, repeating that he wants two dollars that are owed (spawning the catchphrase, "I want my two dollars!"). As Lane races down the mountain on one ski, he overcomes a life gone downhill to find happiness.
John Cusack as Lane Meyer
David Ogden Stiers as Al Meyer
Kim Darby as Jenny Meyer
Demian Slade as Johnny Gasparini
Scooter Stevens as Badger Meyer
Diane Franklin as Monique Junet
Laura Waterbury as Mrs. Smith
Dan Schneider as Ricky Smith
Amanda Wyss as Beth Truss
Curtis Armstrong as Charles De Mar
Aaron Dozier as Roy Stalin
Chuck Mitchell as Rocko