is 25 today.
Hughes’ other film of 1986 is paradoxically the most accomplished of his teen movies and perhaps the least influential; it goes farther than any of the other five in exploring the farcical elements which were increasingly to dominate his work as writer and director. At the same time, it continues the exploration of the anarchic which is always present in his teen films and here dominates even more entirely than it did in ‘Weird Science’. It also, alas, contains material that foreshadows the sad decline of Hughes’ decline over the last two decades.
The predicament of its secondary hero Cameron Fry (Alan Buck) is not radically different from those of the troubled teens of ‘The Breakfast Club’ – his oppression by an uncaring father is as soulfully described – and there are moments of serious emotion amid the comedy that link it momentarily to the more romantic ‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’. In one of the film’s few moments of stillness and sadness, Ferris expresses his concern that at college, Cameron will wreck his life by marrying the wrong girl, because of his lack of self-esteem. Cameron’s eventual decision to take responsibility for the destruction of his father’s car, is not so much a matter of Ferris getting away with things one more time, because he tries to insist on taking the blame, as of Cameron making a decision to confront his father once and for all with no conceivable chance of backing down.
Part of the point of this day is Ferris exploiting Cameron, and part of it is his determination to show his friend a good time. Not all of the good time is boisterous; in a scene of touching innocence, the trio of Ferris, Sloane and Cameron join a crocodile of small children touring the art museum. The film lingers over Cameron’s sense of wonder at the technique of Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’ as much as over Sloane and Ferris necking in front of a Chagall. This ought to seem like a moment of ghastly good taste, but actually it reminds us that Cameron has an inner life of which his friend is not entirely aware.
A reading of the film in which a part of Cameron’s problem is that he is in love with his oblivious friend is not entirely far-fetched. When Cameron discovers how many miles have been put on the Ferrari he screams and lapses into catatonia, and eventually topples, still apparently catatonic, into a deep swimming pool. When Ferris saves him from drowning, Cameron looks at him sappily and says ‘My hero’, gazing at him until Ferris turns the whole moment into horseplay, into which he drags Sloane. Hughes’ intrinsic conservative blinkeredness sometimes frees the material to follow its own direction. Like the relationships in ‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’, there is a homoerotic subtext here which is one of the major traits of the teen movie genre.
The misfortunes of the Dean of Students, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) are more comprehensively humiliating than those of Dick Vernon in ‘The Breakfast Club’, and closer to those of the unfortunate burglars in the ‘Home Alone’ series which Hughes was to script. He remains, especially in Jones’ capable hands, a convincing portrait of a man determined to win small victories over the petty rebellions of teenagers. Rooney, far more even than Vernon, believes himself capable of wrecking a rebellious student’s life and actively wants to do so; he sees himself as a Clint Eastwood figure and is prepared to do anything to trap Ferris, including illegal entry into the Bueller home. Everything that happens to him is entirely deserved.
Ferris (Matthew Broderick) himself is the sort of young man who is popular less for anything he specific he does, but for what he is, which is cool. Indeed, in its cartoony way, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ comes closer than most teen films to defining what cool is. It is not just that Ferris gets away with things and lives a life almost as scatheless as that of Bugs Bunny; it is that he does so with style taking risks for their own sake as well as for the oppurtunities they bring him. ‘You can never go too far’ he says to Cameron and to his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his entire existence is bound up with that motto. It is typical of the clash in Hughes’ work between conservatism and anarchy that Ferris’ recklessness is admirable and successful, whereas the reckless disregard for limits of Dean Rooney has consequences.
It is clear from the school scenes that Ferris’ popularity is based partly on his outrageous lies about himself and partly on the way he is prepared to teach others his techniques – one boy says excitedly ‘He’s getting me out of summer school’. He is, both at school and in the course of his trip to Chicago, a Lord of Misrule, and in some ways an even more effective trickster figure than Lisa in ‘Weird Science.’ Both his sister Jeannie and Dean Rooney hate him for this – Jeannie because Ferris gets away with things she would never dare do and Rooney because of his not entirely wrong assumption that ‘he gives the good kids bad ideas. The last thing I need at this point in my career is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls’.
Ferris’ capacity to impose his will on the world exists in small things like his persuading Cameron to impersonate Sloane’s father on the phone and rather bigger things like persuading Cameron to steal his father’s lovingly restored Ferrari for their day trip to Chicago. In Chicago, he is working on a broader canvas than he is used to, and takes over a German-American parade, first miming to Danke Schon and then to a version of ‘Twist and Shout’ that literally sets all of Chicago, white and black, dancing – including his own father, in his office high above the street. This scene is simply gorgeous in its management of large crowds and its sense that what we are being shown is an apotheosis; Ferris is normally merely a trickster, but here he becomes Dionysus for a few minutes. It is the most perfectly achieved moment Hughes has ever managed earlier or since and part of its pleasure is thinking back to the mildly embarassing dancing of ‘The Breakfast Club’ and the clumsily shot wild parties of ‘Weird Science’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’ and seeing him finally get something entirely right.
In the real world, Ferris would never get away with as much as he does, but this is the world of farce, where much of the time luck as well as ingenuity is on his side. One of the strengths of the film is that Ferris is shown to be less in control than he would like to believe – coincidence is only ever ultimately his friend. Parking attendants take the Ferrari for a thousand mile drive; his father uses the same Chicago restaurant; Rooney’s obsessive pursuit of Ferris persists past the point at which a sane man would have been fooled by Ferris’s ploys.
Sometimes Ferris is saved by coincidences as unlikely as those which might trap him – he and Cameron are visible on screen when a hot dog vendor watches the match they are attending on television at the same time that Rooney is using his napkins to wipe his face clean. Rooney is too preoccupied to notice, because he has just mistaken a slightly butch girl for Ferris and had milkshake blown into his face with her straw. (And if we choose to see this as a specifically sexual humiliation, the more Freudian bits of ‘Weird Science’ entitle us to this view.)
More often, Ferris is saved by people and is saved by them not because of his plots and schemes but because they genuinely like him. His sister Joannie has spent most of the film trying to find a chance to inform against him – she gets a speeding ticket trying to get herself and their mother home ahead of Ferris – and yet saves him when he is finally trapped by the by now demented Rooney. This is partly because of the lecture she has got from a drug-addled youth she made out with in the police station – the youth is played by Charlie Sheen, which explains her good mood – and partly because she realises that Rooney was the intruder she kicked in the face. In the end, she finds it easy to decide which side she is on.
Both she and Rooney are sent into a constant slow burn by the cult of Ferris. One of the film’s rare subtleties is the way his claims to be ill snowball out of control so that, for example, his father fails to see a story about it in the newspaper he is reading and Jeannie, waiting for the police after Rooney’s home invasion, is pestered by a stripogram sent for Ferris. Much of this material is outrageous and some of it is almost subliminal.
It is a tribute to the charm of Matthew Broderick as an actor that the film gets away with fourth wall stuff which might have made Ferris seem unbearably smug. He constantly addresses the camera, explaining many of his scams – how he gives himself the clammy hands that convince his parents that he is genuinely ill – and expressing his somewhat patronizing if clearly accurate views about Cameron’s self-hatred. Comparison with purported earlier versions available online would seem to indicate that some of this material was cut – a scene where Ferris loots the sofa and his siblings’ rooms and his father’s coasts for funds, for example – and one cannot wish it otherwise. (One would have to do an exhaustive study of fourth-wallish films, but it is quite probable that the now common trope of the post-credits zinger, now common in adventure films like ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, was brought back into currency by Ferris’s post-credits appearance telling the audience to stop watching him and go home.)
The finished film is far from perfect. The handling of a snooty maitre d in the Chicago restaurant skirts homophobia and the parking attendants are ethnic lowlife cliches, however joyful their speeding of the Ferrari on the Chicago freeway to the tune of John Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ theme. Sloane is undercharacterised – the truely romantic relationship in the film is the friendship between Ferris and Cameron – even though Mia Sara does what she can with some moments of bonding with Cameron and Sloane’s final ecstatic ‘He’s going to marry me’ as Ferris disappears into the distance.
The humiliations heaped on Rooney are too numerous and a point of diminishing returns is reached at some points. It is funny when he abuses, on the phone, Sloane’s supposed father, whom he assumes to be Ferris, only to realize Ferris is ringing him on another line and start grovelling – to, as we then realize, Cameron. It is funny when he accosts a short-haired woman in a restaurant thinking her Ferris, and when he is kicked in the face by Jeannie as the intruder he in fact is. On the other hand, many of the slapstick gags involving the Bueller family dog and the compost heap and the water barrel are redundant, however funny Jeffery Jones’ slow burn is. The dog in particular foreshadows how much of Hughes’ time was to be wasted on the entirely worthless ‘Beethoven’ films.
What is quite wonderful, though, is the over-the-credits sequence of him getting a lift on the school bus when his car has been towed away, and having to sit at the back, with unpopular kids who offer him Gummi Bears. It goes without saying that at least one of these young unpopular children has ‘Save Ferris’ scrawled on his schoolbooks. Rooney is returned by implication to his own schooldays when, we intuit, he was never popular or cool. (This is a trope which crops up in the television series ‘Buffy’ where the equally unpleasant Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) is mocked as someone who never got a date, and regresses under magical influence into an irritating nerd who wants desperately to hang with the cool kids.)
What ‘Ferris Bueller’ brings to the teen genre, ultimately is a sense of how it is possible to be cool and popular without being especially rich or a sports hero. Unlike the heroes of ‘Weird Science’, Ferris is computer savvy without being a nerd or a geek – it is a skill he has taken the trouble to learn. (Willow in ‘Buffy’ starts off as shy and unpopular, but does not discard her fascination with skill when she gains confidence, and Veronica Mars, in the show of the same name has much of Ferris’ ability to use computers as a part of her elaborate plots.) Some of the finest moments in later teen film draw on Ferris’ blithe Dionisiac fervour – the elaborate courtship by song in ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ draws usefully on the Twist and Shout sequence in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’