A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 
 

FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF jjj

20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1986, PG-13, 102 mins.

 

Matthew Broderick: Ferris Bueller / Alan Ruck: Cameron / Mia Sara: Simone / Jennifer Grey: Jeanine / Jeffrey Jones: Dean Rooney / Cindy Pickett: Mrs. Bueller / Lyman Ward: Mr. Bueller / Ben Stein: Economics teacher / Charlie Sheen: Stoner

 

Written and directed by John Hughes

"Not that I condone fascism, or any 'ism' for that matter. 'Ism's' in my opinion are not good.  A person should not believe in an 'ism', he should believe in himself."

Ferris Bueller in 'FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF'

 

I must confess something here dear readers (and I hope my mother is not reading this): I am guilty of accentuating an illness in order to remain absent from school.  Okay, fine…I have downright faked an illness a few times in my youth to garner an almighty mini-vacation from school.  Anyone that says that they have never done so - not once - are seriously deluding themselves.  Everyone has done it at some time or another in their childhood or adolescence.  That’s what makes the transition to adulthood so invigorating.  We grow up (well, most of us), put our priorities together, and develop a sense of responsibility.  When you’re an angst-ridden tyke with a modest rebellious side, playing hooky seems pretty consequence free and fun…as long as you can get away with it.

There are some that are pretty idle and nonchalant about skipping school, and then there are teenagers like Ferris Bueller, who take truancy and treat it like a science.  In his mind, faking an illness is not something to be taken lightly.  It’s not something you just wake up and do; rather, there is a specific technique to the whole enterprise.  At one point in John Hughes’ 1986 comedy, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, the young hoodwinker breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience and reveals his age-old secrets to successfully cutting class (I am sure that, as an adult, Ferris would easily make a fortune writing “Skipping School for Dummies”, but I digress).

Ferris has got his skills down to every miniscule level.  He offers up his classic system of getting your parents to believe your sob-induced illness.  “The key to faking out the parents,” Ferris reveals, “is the clammy hands. It's a good non-specific symptom; I'm a big believer in it.  A lot of people will tell you that a good phony fever is a dead lock, but, uh... you get a nervous mother, you could wind up in a doctor's office. That's worse than school.  You fake a stomach cramp, and when you're bent over, moaning and wailing, you lick your palms. It's a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.”  Ferris needs these methods.  At the beginning of the film he admits that he is now missing his ninth sick day of the semester, so he has to make this ninth absence really count.  “Next one I want I’ll have to barf up a lung,” he humorously tells us.

This is the overall premise to FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, a wonderfully droll and sharp 1980’s comedy that came from the man who had the market cornered for teen angst and insubordination, John Hughes.  In terms of 1980’s cinema, he could arguably take claim to making this type of youth market film genre all his own.  For a very brief period during this decade, Hughes carved out a niche for himself for making sensitive, empathetic, and whimsical portraits of the modern adolescent. 

He started his comedic career as a writer for more decidedly adult fare in MR. MOM and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION until he saw his calling for abandoning adult characters and focused on those just traveling through puberty.  Early forays, like SIXTEEN CANDLES in 1984 and his landmark THE BREAKFAST CLUB in 1985, demonstrated his unique sensibilities with understanding how young people perceived the world around them.  Some critics have gone on record for saying that Hughes pandered down to teens for exploitation value, whereas others labeled him as a smart and insightful voice that understood them.  Perhaps a little of both of those sentiments are true. 

Most of his media branded Brat Pack films definitely work as memorable entertainments because of his knack for getting inside the general malaise that most teens (both then and now) suffer through.  He allowed them to comment on their situation openly and honestly (to his credit, not too many youth market films allowed for this).  On the other hand - and at the expense of his singular gift for breathing life into his teen personas - his adult characters really suffered.  By comparison, the mature authority figures in these films were essentially witless, moronic, and unsympathetic stooges that had no idea what was going on with their children.  This can easily been seen in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, a meditation on how all teens are misunderstood by their unscrupulous parents and teachers.  One only has to wonder how great this film (other other Hughes offerings) could have been if they allowed for a more socially bipartisan.

However, saying that may be missing the point of these films.  FERRIS BUELLER, much like Hughes’ other youth films, never promises to be excursions into how the adult mindset works.  The film is a sweet, lightweight, and good-natured farce on the teen mindset.  Yes, Bueller and all of his Bueller-aholics see parents and teachers as mindless drones, but that’s beside the point.  The film is from Bueller’s point of view, not from the prerogative of his parents or teachers.  Honestly, anyone that was a teenager certainly can remember not liking teachers or parents.  At that time they were the embodiment of stern rules and authoritarian values.  To a naïve and fiercely independent teenager, why would you like them?

Perhaps that’s what makes FERRIS BUELLER a film cut from a bit of a different mould than other teen-angst flicks.  This film is completely 180 degrees removed from, say, THE BREAKFAST CLUB.  Those teens were troubled, apathetic, unruly, and genuinely despised their peers and parents.  Not Bueller.  There is a kindness and affability that permeates the character.  He does not hate his peers, teachers, or mother and father.  He skips school a lot, but he does not do so because he’s a raging rebel without a cause.  “Life moves pretty fast,” he states at one point, “if you don’t stop to look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”  What his absenteeism really boils down to is having fun.  There is no deep or penetrating message he is trying to send out to the masses.  More than anything, Bueller actually sacrifices getting into serous trouble to help out his buddy, the hapless Cameron, so that he can learn to like and respect himself. 

That’s the angle that I have always liked about the film.  I discovered the film (as many people my age had) during the infancy of the home video format.  I watched the film dozens of times in my early teens and found it to be hilarious.  I think that, as an adult viewer twenty years later, I respond to it a bit differently.  Sure, the film’s broad, physical comedy still plays okay, but underneath it is a sweet and tender story about friendship and one friend trying to instill in his best buddy the notion that, hey, get out of Depressionville and start enjoying life.  This is not an easy task, and Ferris knows it.  Cameron lives in a life of rich luxury (his father owns an expensive home and has a vintage, custom made Ferrari as his toy).  His father’s materialism haunts the young Cameron ("My father loves that car more than life itself", he tells Ferris, “It is his love, it his passion”).  Cameron loves his father, but hates his affluent and greedy impulses.  His dad puts his restored sports car on a pedestal of worship.  In a way, Cameron only wishes that he could achieve such a lucrative spot in his dad’s heart.

So, it’s Ferris (played memorably by a young Matthew Broderick) to Cameron’s (Alan Ruck) rescue.  Ferris, after all, is the cool and smooth-talking foil to Cameron’s indifferent and droopy moodiness.  Realizing that his best friend needs him, Ferris sets the stage in motion to con his parents and teachers into getting the day off so he, his girlfriend (Mia Sara) and Cameron can take a pleasure cruise through Chicago and take in some the scenery.  Most kids that want to stay home from school would be fine just staying home and letting TV and video games pollute their minds.  Bueller is too intelligent, cultured, and dignified for that.  He wants to take his friends out for a day on the town, and do so in style.  This, of course, leads one to believe that Ferris should easily be spotted and caught red handed if he makes himself public on a “sick day.”  Yet, one of the funniest running gags in the film is how he effortlessly avoids being caught.  At one point he jumps up on top of a float during Chicago’s annual Von Steuben Day Parade and lip synchs The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”  This guy’s got confidence - and a lot of balls -  I’ll give him that.  You just have to respect his energy and liveliness.

Getting out on the town is not totally easy for Ferris and his pals.  He engages in a very, very elaborate charade that, if I get this straight, involves fooling his parents; fooling his teachers; faking his girlfriends’ grandmother’s death; faking an answering machine for the mortuary where the grandmother is; faking the girlfriends’ dad over the phone and actually impersonating him to pick her up from school; and…I almost forgot...hacking into the school’s computer in order to change his 9 days of truancy to 2.  “I asked for a car, and I got a computer,” Ferris deadpans to the audience.  Ethan Hunt and his comrades from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE could definitely respect this kid and his resourcefulness.

There is one big catch to Ferris’s scheme.  Actually, there are two.  First, he has to convince the endlessly depressed Cameron to get out of bed and have a good time (“Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond").  Well, he manages to do so by appealing to his friend’s good side, but there’s the problem of picking up his girlfriend from school.  Well, Ferris achieves the impossible by convincing Cameron to let them take his dad’s 1961 Ferrari GT250.  Why?  Maybe because the school’s principal, Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones, hammy it up to one dimensional perfection) would never believe that a rich family would come to school in a clunker like Cameron’s car.  They do take the car, but Cameron reveals that his dad precisely knows the mileage.  “That’s easy to fix,” Bueller explains, “We’ll drive home backwards!”  Humour aside, there is a sense of dark foreshadowing with the trio talking the car.  Anyone who has studied Cinematic Clichés 101 will be able to predict with lightning speed that the priceless car will not make it back in one piece.

Regardless, Ferris shows his friends the time of their lives.  He is able to smooth talk them into a fancy and posh restaurant by impersonating the “Sausage King of Chicago”, visit the Sears Tower, go to the Board of Trade Building, catch a Chicago Cubs game (there is cute gag here where Ferris is shown on TV catching a foul ball, but – of course – his principal just misses it), and – in one of the more interesting bits – they all go to the Art Institute to look at priceless works of art.  There is an inspired moment where Cameron is transfixed in one particular pointillist work, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island by La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, where Hughes allows the camera to zoom in close enough to see the individual brush marks. 

Clearly, this Ferris hosted travelogue has its moments of introspection.  One particular scene at the Sears Tower - where the three look directly down to the streets and notice that the cars look like insects - releases Cameron’s ambivalence and lack of meaning in his life and family (“I’ll give you two reasons why you should not get married,” he tells Ferris, “my mother and father”).  Ferris knows his friend suffers, which culminates in him crashing a parade.  I mean, this guy will go to any length to amuse his friends.  The film has gets a considerable amount of mileage showcasing the friends cavorting around from one fun setting to another, even if it’s at the expense of some heavy-handed and forced philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  Ferris is a cunning, smart, and ingenious young man, but some of his pontificating is not all that inspired (“Cameron has never been in love - at least, nobody's ever been in love with him. If things don't change for him, he's gonna marry the first girl he lays”).

If there is a counterpoint to the trio’s shenanigans it’s the ruthlessness of the Rooney’s attempts to catch Ferris in the act.  As a child watching the film I ate up the cartoonish buffoonery of the Jones character, who basically becomes a revenge driven stalker who will lower himself to absolute rock bottom to stop Ferris once and for all.  “Last thing I need at this point in my career,” he tells his secretary, “is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.”  She dryly responds, “He makes you look like an ass, is what he does.”

That’s the film’s ultimate mindset to anyone over 30 years old.  Essentially, they are figures that have no polish, refinement, or genuine understanding.  The Hughes adult figures in these types of films have always been cold, distant, and dumb (which is somewhat offensive, in an innocuous kind of way).  There is some pleasure to be derived out of watching the teachers force their students into a state of a complete lethargic bore.  In one the most remembered and beloved moments of any comedy from the 80’s, the great Ben Stein -  playing a dry and sleep-inducing economics teacher - does his iconic role call in the morning (“Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?”).  He then engages in the film’s most hilarious moment where he gives a lecture on Voodoo Economics and the Great Depression.  Stein, interestingly enough, has a master degree in economics from Columbia University and was told by Hughes to improvise the lecture.  What results is the film’s most sidesplitting moment.

Considering that Hughes wrote the script in just five days, FERRIS BUELLER is quite a decently paced and polished film.  In terms of narrative, not much really happens.  The film is effectively a series vignettes of Bueller escaping authority figures, treating his friends to a great day, and Rooney engaging in scheme after scheme to get Ferris with the success rate of a Wilie Coyote.  Other figures drop in here and there (like a very funny performance by pre-DIRTY DANCING’s Jennifer Grey as Ferris’ mean spirited sister).  There is a nice little scene with her and a drug addict at a police station, played by none other than Charlie Sheen, who actually stayed up 48 hours straight to give his five minute cameo as a stoner the right look.  Now that's dedication.

Yet, make no mistake about it, the film works because of the performances.  Alan Ruck, who was nearly 30 when he played the 18 year-old Cameron, is effectively deprecating and sad as the beleaguered teen, but it is Matthew Broderick’s innate charisma, effervescent charm, and vitality that gives the film it’s spunk.  Ferris is the type of teen rebel we all want to be.  He’s not mean-spirited; he actually cares about those around him and does a sincere amount of apologizing when he makes mistakes.  He, unlike other Hughes teens, loves his parents and family and actually does not lambaste about how cruel the world is and how badly his parents misunderstand him.  The most refreshing part of FERRIS BUELLER is the fact that the title character is a teen that’s not vile, spiteful or world weary.  He loves what a nice, sunny day will bring him and his friends.  Sure, he willfully defies authority,  but Broderick paints him as such an amiable and agreeable rogue that its impossible not to root for him.  When he looks into the camera and tells the audience his philosophical mutterings on life and his place in the world, he does so with such a swagger and poise that we start to believe him. 

Broderick is an actor that, thankfully, did not get caught up in playing sly, fast-talking teen roles for the rest of his career.  His post-BUELLER resume is amazingly dense.  He went on to star as a young military inductee in 1987’s controversial PROJECT X, a World War II boot camp cadet in Neil Simon’s BILOXI BLUES, a grandson to Sean Connery’s life criminal in 1989’s FAMILY BUSINESS, and a Civil War leader in GLORY of the same year.  Perhaps his most serendipitous post-BUELLER work was his turn in one of the most underrated films of the 1990’s in Alexander Payne’s high school satire ELECTION.  That was the anti-Hughes film in that it focused on the teachers and adult characters first where Broderick played, ironically, a teacher.  In a way, he sort of came full circle with the film.

Hughes himself perhaps did not fare as well as Broderick.  He jumped ship from doing more teen-centric films and made some very respectable films in 1987’s SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (which he wrote) and PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES from the same year (which he wrote and directed).  After peaking in the mid-eighties, Hughes allowed himself to flounder in a long series of brainless and juvenile comedies, like 1988’s THE GREAT OUTDOORS, 1990’s HOME ALONE (which amazingly became an all-time box office money maker), 1991’s DUTCH, and so on.  His last directorial effort was 15 years ago in 1991’s CURLY SUE.  Arguably, after making a considerable amount of fluff over the past decade, it could be said that Hughes past his prime ages ago.

Yet, 20 years after its release, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF still remains one of Hughes' more appealing and funny teen films.  It proudly showcases a young Matthew Broderick in his career making turn as super smart and crafty adolescent who outthinks everyone around him to get a highly lucrative day off of school.  The film’s head may be vacant at times (some of the comedy emerges as uncomfortably broad and slapsticky to the point of overkill, and the adult characters are developed as unsophisticated societal rejects), but there is no denying that the heart is in the underlining material.  Ferris Bueller is a kinder, softer, and more affable type of teen dissenter, one that appreciates life and everything around it and goes to great pains to ensure the happiness of those closest to him.  I think that's the film's most long-lasting legacy.  It’s able to take the nihilism out of adolescent solitude and sluggishness and make it a period to savor and enjoy.  Some would rightfully argue that the segue into adulthood is painful, but FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF insists that this phase can be pleasurable.  It’s just all in your mindset.

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