There’s been a lot of talk lately about the loss of the great American superhero in film. Batman is Welsh. Superman and Spider-Man are British. Old Professor X is British. Young Professor X is Scottish. Thor and Wolverine are Australian. Green Lantern and Green Hornet are Canadian. Captain America, at least, is actually American.
Of course, we’ll always have Never Really Off-Duty Cop and Badass Hall of Famer John McClane, but I proudly claim another character as part of my American pop culture heritage, a character whom I would like to salute today: the scrawny, surprisingly confident, smooth-talking 80s kid. I miss that kid. Where are our Ferris Buellers, our Marty McFlys, our Lloyd Doblers, our Duckies? Where is that kid who remains casually indomitable in the face of high school hell, disapproving adults and disinterested girls? He’s not a superhero, but he’s superfluously charming and he lives a charmed life. He’s a little guy, but he’s fearless. Most importantly, he’s optimistic in the face of loserdom, and that unconquerable optimism is what saves him from being a loser.
He redefines coolness through a combination of quirky nonchalance and insuppressible joie de vivre. That boy turns loving life into pure, unadulterated art. He can transform one day of hooky into a car-cruising, parade-crashing, hot tub-chilling celebration of youth. He can fly on a skateboard. He turns designated driving into absolute magic. He befriends the bouncer who won’t let him in the club. His love of music makes him dauntless. He’ll kick over his amp and end “Johnny B. Goode” with a righteous solo in front of a room filled with silent, uncomfortable squares. He’ll make his way to the top of a parade float to serenade his best friend with “Twist and Shout.” He’ll lip-sync the shit out of “Try A Little Tenderness” to win over the love of his life. He’ll stand outside his crush’s bedroom window, blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox that he holds earnestly above his head. That kid doesn’t shy away from being smitten. He would do anything for Jennifer, for Andie, for Sloane, for Diane. He makes himself ridiculous for her, and we love him for it.
What I admire most about that kid, however, is that he revels in being different. He’s easy to pick on because he wears bizarre clothes, he’s obsessed with kickboxing or his name’s fucking Duckie. He’s weird and he owns it. He’s not trying to fit in, and he couldn’t if he tried. What’s more, he stands up to that bastion of high school iniquity, the jock. He may be picked on, but he can never be bullied, because he transcends the coolness hierarchy to which most teens are slaves.
But with the descent of John Hughes, we have the ascent of Todd Phillips. Instead of Michael J. Fox, Matthew Broderick, John Cusack and Jon Cryer, we have Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Bradley Cooper and Will Ferrell. These guys can be goofy, they can be charming, but what they ultimately represent are assholes. They’re the jocks of the movie, and what they lack in athletic prowess they make up for in obnoxious bullying. They mock and prank and disappoint, and then at the end of the movie they learn something and we’re supposed to believe that they’ve grown and they won’t be boorish little shits for the rest of their lives.
Devin said something in his post about Bradley Cooper in the remake of The Crow that got me thinking. He said that Cooper would be a villain in an 80s movie, and yet he’s a leading man today. Hell, most modern comedy protagonists would make perfect 80s movie villains. They play complete jerks. They humiliate their friends, they hurt their wives and girlfriends, they antagonize strangers and they make appalling decisions that result in catastrophe for their loved ones. In an 80s movie, these are the guys who would stroll up dressed in pastel sports coats and trip the hero as he walks down the hall, then guffaw and high five their buddies. Why the hell are we rooting for these people?
Thankfully we still have Jason Segel, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg and Jay Baruchel to represent the harmless, nerdy, sweet percentage of the male comedy population. But what every single one of those guys is missing that separates him from his scrawny 80s counterpart is confidence. Joie de vivre. Charisma. The reason jackasses like The Hangover‘s Phil are taking over is that they possess all the glamour and moxie in their movies. Michael Cera is so squirrely, I kind of want to give him a wedgie myself. Can you imagine trying to bully Ferris? He’d exact an elaborate revenge scenario with the support of the entire student body, and he wouldn’t even take a break from making out with his insanely hot girlfriend to do it.
I would love to see that character in a modern comedy. I’d love to root for someone who isn’t a nerve-addled, milquetoast goober or an overgrown frat boy. Any suggestions to fill that vacuum in mainstream comedies today? I adore Jason Segel, but his shtick is 100% sadsack. I think Baruchel could do it with the right material. He was pretty charming and brave in Tropic Thunder, after all. I’ve always thought Topher Grace should be in more movies that aren’t Spider-Man 3. Most likely no one can fill Marty or Ferris’s shoes, but if we shot a little lower, who could be our next Duckie or Lloyd Dobler?