What Works & What Doesn't: 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
Welcome once again to What Works & What Doesn't, whereby we examine the basic mechanics of a good screenplay by weighing a given film's pros and cons. This month we'll be looking at the 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Let's get it out of the way right now: Bueller? Bueller?
In previous installments of this series, I've focused on the role of a protagonist, what works about them, and what doesn't (especially so in the Forest Gump column from August of this year). So it is fitting that, this time around, we're going to discuss the role of the antagonist. And of course, that means we'll be talking about Dean of Students Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones).
Now, as this is a comedy, Rooney's role is more that of a cartoon villain, and thus he never really poses much of a real threat to the titular high schooler (Matthew Broderick) and his titular afternoon of recuperation. But this is also not to say that there aren't stakes at play in this narrative.
This raises the question, however: if not to directly interfere with Ferris's good time, just what function does Rooney serve in this story? Why is he there? Purely for laughs, generated at the scholarly authority figure who thinks himself so slick, but in reality is a prat-falling buffoon? Or is there more going on here?
Let's dive into this thing and find out.
Or, at least, the function of antagonism in a narrative, because as Robert McKee, author of Story, notes, that which stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals is not necessarily a person, but rather a set of forces aligned against the protagonist and their actions. He writes:
THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
...The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become. "Forces of antagonism" doesn't necessarily refer to a specific antagonist or villain. In appropriate genres arch-villains, like the Terminator, are a delight, but by "forces of antagonism" we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character's will and desire.
The Terminator is a great example of a film functioning on an opposite level as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (henceforth FBDO): broken down to its fundamental core, James Cameron's film is the recognizable man vs. machine narrative (or woman, in this case, though I guess Reese is there too). Humans have a disadvantage in that the machine cannot be killed (at least easily), but they have the advantage of survival instincts, of which the machine has little (the T-800 barrels into dangerous circumstances with little thought to its personal well-being, after all). There are some emotional antagonists at play in the film, but overall the stakes are pretty straight-forward, and summed up in Reese's famous line: "Come with me if you want to live," or in other words, "unless you're itching to die, you better start running now." And that's it.
On the other end of the spectrum, the forces of antagonism at play in FBDO are largely personal and emotional, as I mentioned above. Now, I should state right now that, in going into this column, I had intended to demonstrate, in brief, how Ferris wasn't a very good protagonist because he basically bullies Cameron (Alan Ruck) into conforming to his ideal mold of "a good time," but that this hardly mattered because Cameron, Ferris's sweetheart Sloane (Mia Sara) and of course Ed Rooney were such strong supporting characters that they made up for Ferris's general unlikable nature. But upon rewatching the film, I realized I was completely wrong on this front. Basically, my feelings on Ferris were aligned with those of Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), the protagonist's older (younger?) sister, who scoffs at her brother's seeming ability to coast throughout life without consequences, who is immensely popular despite actively doing little to gain others' affection.
Just as Jeannie learns, however, I too realized that Ferris has a lot more depth than it initially seems. The title of the film may reference his character taking a holiday, and the narrative may at first seem that everything he does while skipping school is a means of nurturing his own lust for life and adventure, it becomes increasingly evident that instead Ferris orchestrates everything—the day off, the trips to a fancy restaurant and the once-Sears Tower, to Wrigley Field and the Art Institute of Chicago, and finally, his crashing of the Von Steuben German Day Parade and the subsequent dance party that ensues around Ferris's lip-syncing of "Twist and Shout"—all of this was for Cameron. Ferris doesn't drag his friend out of bed despite Cameron's nasty cold—he knows Cameron isn't actually sick, but rather a bit of a hypochondriac who perversely feels better when he's sick, due to his shitty home-life. He encourages Cameron to take his dad's prized Ferrari for the day not (only) because Ferris wants the experience of driving such a cherry ride, but because he knows it will be good for Cameron to defy his father and break the rules a little. Of course, this decision leads to consequences that Ferris did not foresee, and it almost ruins the entire perfect day he planned for his friend. And even when it seems all hope is lost and his friend will forever sink into a quicksand pit of misery, everything works out in the end, and Cameron proclaims this "day off" to be the best day of his entire life, and the film ends on a happy note.
But What About Rooney?
Well, to start, he is a part of the forces of antagonism at play here, because other than Jeannie, he represents the only character in the narrative who wants Ferris to pay for his carefree lifestyle. Ferris, in Rooney's mind, is a threat to his authority and his control of the student body (the joke of course being that Rooney holds little control over the students without Ferris's contributions). His initial attempts to lay the smack down on his teenage rival fail (truly funny business we don't have time to get into here), prompting Rooney to hit the streets in the hopes of catching Ferris red-handed in the act of truancy—which, of course, if he succeeds in doing, will ruin Ferris's chances of saving Cameron.
But of course, Rooney gets nowhere near Ferris during his furlough away from school. He awkwardly mistakes a young woman for his prey, and gets a face-full of Coca-Cola as his comeuppance; he goes to Ferris's house in the hopes of luring him out (which proves how little he really knows his enemy, since Ferris would be nowhere near his own home on such a nice day); he loses a shoe to a mud pit while trying to peak into the kitchen window; he's mauled by the family Rottweiler after sticking his head through the doggy door; when he finally gains entrance (read: breaks and enters) into the Bueller house, he's hardcore kicked in the face by Jeannie, who has arrived home on her own quest to catch Ferris in the act; and finally, his car gets quite comically over-ticketed and finally towed away, leaving Rooney with nothing to do but run, half-shoed, down the street after his extradited vehicle.
Poor, clueless Rooney. What a putz!
Up until this point in the narrative, Rooney hasn't served much function other than to make us laugh with his increasing stupidity and overzealousness. As well, he kinda becomes Wile E. Coyote, consistently smacked and abused for our amusement (and more deserving than that poor coyote, I must add). And this shot of him running after his car is the last we'll see of him for a bit.
Meanwhile, we watch as Ferris's perfect day is almost ruined—there isn't the space, but it all revolves around Cameron's dad's Ferrari (watch the movie), and Jeannie gets busted for "making a prank call" (she had phoned the police after discovering Rooney in her house, whom she didn't immediately recognize, but nonetheless correctly marked as an intruder in her home; Jesus, talk about victim-blaming). At the police station, the jealous sister gets some solid advice from Charlie Sheen, and makes out with him to boot, proving that even Jeannie can break the rules and have a good time every now and then.
The climax of the film comes in the form of Ferris racing home after his day off. See, the one caveat to "committing the perfect crime," so to speak, is that he has to be back in bed before six o'clock to continue his illness charade before his parents get home. He's lost track of time, so he has to run fast. Then, he has to run even faster when Jeannie, en route home with her mother, spots Ferris and guns the car in an attempt to beat him to the house. Lucky for Ferris there's a cop nearby who pulls Jeannie over and gives her a speeding ticket, allowing Ferris to literally bounce into his backyard and land right at the kitchen door. Except! the spare key isn't under the mat, like it should be. Where is it? Oh shit!
He steps into frame, his shoe and pant-leg a soggy, muddy mess. Rooney. We last saw him running after his car. We thought that was the last of him. But no...He never left. He's been a snake in the grass this whole time, biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He sneers, holds out the spare key in his hand, and says, "Looking for this?"
Busted. After all that, after everything. Sure, Cameron's going to be okay, and that was the whole point of this adventure, but Rooney can also see to it that Ferris doesn't graduate high school. Not to mention, he'll rat Ferris out to his parents, which means they'll keep tabs on him, preventing any further summer adventures with Cameron and Sloane. Game over, man, game over.
BUT! Jeannie appears in the back door and saves Ferris's ass, thanking Mr. Rooney for driving him home from the hospital and sending her brother up to bed, while also producing Rooney's wallet, which he'd dropped in the kitchen when he committed breaking and entering earlier—a winking way of saying "I know it was you." And lastly, the Rottweiler gets to sink his teeth into Rooney again.
So, ultimately, being a hopeless buffoon is Rooney's grand purpose in the film, but it isn't just buffoonery for the sake of buffoonery. We go through the entire film basically believing that Rooney, this putz, could never truly foil our hero. He's too clueless and stupid to pull it off. We write him off early on, and when we see him chasing after the truck towing his car away, we are tricked into thinking this is an exiting shot for the character. The threat to Ferris pulling off the perfect day then switches to Jeannie, who could very realistically ruin everything because she is far smarter than Rooney could ever hope to be, and she's in a position to best her brother. But Ferris makes it home before she does, and we truly believe (if we're engrossed in the narrative, of course) that he'll be able to make it up the stairs and back into bed before his sister and his parents enter the house. That Rooney stomps into frame like Godzilla trampling Tokyo comes as a bit of surprise (again, snake in the grass metaphor). A threat we thought had passed has now returned, and this time, it's a real threat. But, his presence in this final scene also helps Ferris and Jeannie to reconcile their differences in one act of generosity on the part of Jeannie, settling this narrative arc and giving Rooney his second-to-last humiliation (a final proverbial kick in the ass arrives in the form of an in-credits scene).
See, the true force of antagonism in this scenario is Jeannie, who perhaps sees some of herself in Rooney, and doesn't like the resemblance one bit (also, advice from / making out with Charlie Sheen in the police station). She realizes that she only has herself to blame for not living her life, and she should stop hating Ferris for the seeming ease with which he cruises through life. Thus, at a pivotal moment, when her brother is about to get owned by Rooney—an actualization of everything she's ever wanted—Jeannie changes course and instead saves Ferris, mending their troubled relationship and letting go of her jealousy all at once. She joins team Ferris in the end, realizing that hatred for him is for the dogs (get it? The Rottweiler fucks up Rooney again. See what I did there?).
This leaves us with the falling action. Ferris's parents are none the wiser, and he addresses the audience one last (almost) time, repeating the adage that sums up the entire point of the film:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
What say you, LitReactor folk? What's your take on Ed Rooney and his function in Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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