On Screen: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Written and directed by John Hughes


In the American heart there’s a spacious niche for rogues. Flux rules American life and rogues know how to go with the flow: up and down the social scale, into intimacies with reform-minded women, into the pockets of the rich, out of harm’s way. While most of us are chivvied about by our own timetables, rogues assume that time will stand still while they close that one last deal or peer into yet another pretty face. We envy rogues until their adaptability shades into sheer hypocrisy, until their hunger turns to greed.

There’s an extremely funny moment near the climax of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that both epitomizes the nature of the film’s hero and capitalizes on an audience’s sneaking complicity with rogues. Ferris, a quick-witted and absurdly self-assured truant from high school, is desperately trying to reach home before his parents discover that he has been larking about Chicago with his best friends, instead of spending the day sick in bed as they assumed. Running across the plush lawns of his upper-class neighborhood, he passes two bikinied beauties not of his acquaintance who are sunning themselves. The recumbent women are center screen, in medium shot. Breathless with panic and having not a second to lose, Ferris dashes onto the scene from the left; without stopping he mumbles his apologies for trespassing and dashes straight off right, out of camera range. The camera stays on the motionless women. A couple of seconds pass. Then Ferris, walking quite nonchalantly, seemingly without a care in the world, retraces his way back into the shot and approaches the women in his most winning manner. “Hi, I’m Ferris Bueller.” It’s not just a pass. He projects the aggressive aplomb of a young politico.

At this the audience roared, and I roared with them. This kid’s need to seize every and any moment of self-gratification and self-promotion, even in the face of catastrophe, is like a bold proclamation that he and he alone is Fortune’s Favorite, that he can get away with anything. And of course he is and he can. Every trap that he stumbles into is immediately sprung, partly by Ferris’s wit but mainly by the benevolence of Lady Luck. For instance, when Ferris’s vindictive principal, taking a break from his rabid pursuit of the truant, walks up to a bar on which a TV set is tuned to a Cubs game, the TV camera zooms in on Ferris and his pals seated in the grandstand. But the principal, who has been watching the game, turns his back just as Ferris’s face comes into close-up. This and the other narrow escapes are like coy love-taps from Dame Fortuna reminding her favorite that the jaws of hell gape wide for all save those who walk under her mercy.

Who would not want to be Fortune’s Favorite? And who can help but cheer on even a knave, or even especially a knave, who enjoys such patronage? Ferris is a decidedly innocuous knave at that, who merely wants to play hooky. We need never stop wishing him well.

And we don’t. Not quit. But there are some problems inherent in who Ferris Bueller is, and, in finessing those problems, writer-director John Hughes has ended up creating a much odder film than he may have had in mind, and certainly an odder and more disturbing film than most critics take it for (“The feel-good comedy of the summer” — Michael Medved, Sneak Previews).

But just what is Ferris trying to elude? He is not threatened with death, imprisonment, physical pain, or humiliation. He is simply trying to bull school because he’s not prepared for a test on European socialism. “Why should I take this test?” Ferris asks the audience. “I’m not European, and I don’t intend to become a socialist.” That’s the great American shrug: why do we have to bother about all that? “All that” is the past, and all those decisions made by the dead and gone. To shrug off “all that” makes sense when Tom Sawyer, say, is doing the shrugging — for Tom lived in an America that was indeed new and relatively free of foreign entanglements. His flouting of the schoolmarm and the parson is exhilarating, even justified, since the schoolmarm, herself a semi-educated provincial, tries to force-feed him with a culture that is both stifling and half-baked, while the parson seeks to dose him with a religion that portrays God as a petty tyrant. By flouting them, Tom may get a chance to grow into a free man, and he will certainly have a few soul-swelling moments in solitude which the adults would grudge him.

But when Ferris Bueller takes his day off, he isn’t trying to hop onto a raft with Huck in order to escape a narrow-minded village. No, he’s driving a Japanese sports car into Chicago in order to savor the fruits of a bustling society: he takes his friends to the best restaurants, to a ball game, to an art gallery, into parades, onto terraces overlooking the metropolis. For awhile I wondered if Ferris would have enough pocket money to cover all this; but then I realized he was just the sort of kid whose parents give him a credit card. Tom Sawyer needed a certain amount of nerve and physical hardiness to make his escape from society’s constraints; Ferris, with his home computer eliminating the record of his unexcused absences from the school’s electronic file, and his answering machine programmed to tell callers that he’s too weak to answer the phone or the front door, needs nothing but a certain savvy about how to use the hardware that his parents have lavished on him. How can we sympathize with a boy who is so well equipped with the latest inventions so far up the social scale, in so little danger of falling through the cracks of capitalistic society? What forces array themselves against our hero? A high school test? The parents who so obviously love him? A few weeks of being grounded at home (in his cushy bedroom stocked with all the latest electronic junk)? Or the possibility of having to make up a few credits in summer school? The trouble with Ferris Bueller as a rogue-hero is that we can too easily stop regarding him as a rogue and start seeing him as an affluent little pig.

So it’s simply an afternoon in an efficient, up-to-date high school that Ferris wishes to avoid? Very well. Although Hughes shows us the cheerful hallways and the relaxed gatherings between classes, he makes the classroom itself a place of pole-axing boredom, where students are slumped in their seats or crumpled over their desk tops, numbed by the drone of their economics teacher’s voice, drool escaping from their open mouths, their eyes glazed past all hope of recall. This scene gives us Education As Lobotomy. Who could not sympathize with Ferris’s plan to escape this miasma of boredom? And yet who would not wonder at the affluence of a high school that offers a course in economics? (This scene was made both piquant and queasy for me by the fact that the android-like teacher was played by Ben Stein, one of the most brilliant scourges of pop culture in journalism today [see his critique of Miami Vice in the October/November 1985 issue of Public Opinion magazine]. Here, Stein’s perfect performance sustains the pop view that education is a drag.)

But Hughes needed a dramatic motor to keep his movie going after Ferris escapes school. And so the school principal is portrayed as a spiteful obsessive who not only gleefully notes the boy’s unexcused absences and bad academic record, but abandons his office to hunt his prey down in the wilds of Chicago. Jeffery Jones, so good as the Emperor in Amadeus, is equally good here in a monochromatic role. His narrow, triangular face twitching with malice, his eyes agleam and his canniness exposed at the prospect of putting a dent in our hero’s future, Jones makes this administrator into a fitting denmate for the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. Scene by scene, Jones grows leaner and mangier until, at the conclusion, he seems etiolated by spite, a walking warning against the perils of resentment. Jones’s performance helps the movie considerably because the portrayal of an establishment figure as a comic monster allows Ferris to come across as an authentic comic rebel.

So far, so good. Most of the movie works as a cartoon does, by imposing a consistent lunacy upon the audience. Casting twenty-four-year old Mathew Broderick in the lead was a coupe: his adult assurance combines with his strangely elfin Irish face to create just the sort of prodigy of mischief that Ferris is supposed to be. And Hughes has a talent for using photography, editing, and music in such a way that his characters — like cartoon creatures — seem to spend their lives with exclamation points over their heads. He knows how to create a world of zip! and zap! and kapow!

At its best, Ferris Bueller‘s high spirits recall the British comedies of the 1960s, especially those of Richard Lester. Like the older movies, Ferris is full of carefully choreographed romps that express the exuberance of youth: Ferris breaking up an ethnic parade to lead the Chicagoan population in a chorus of “Twist and Shout” recalls the Beatles dashing through the field in A Hard Day’s Night and the kids of The Knack wheeling a bed through the streets of London. But there is this important difference: in the British films, the rebellion took place against a mileau of hard-bitten bigotry, ignorance, and poverty, reinforced by a centuries-old class system.

The youthful heroes knew that once their spree was over, they would have to return to real dreariness. By taking the day off to do something crazy, they were trying to preserve a little life within themselves, trying to stave off the sort of creeping cultural aphasia they felt their elders had fallen victim to. Their mischievousness was a survival tactic.

The truancy of the Ferris Bueller kids partakes of no such desperation. Far from trying to preserve the little life that remains in their souls, they are merely consumers on a spree. It’s impossible to consider what they do as an outburst when there is so little misery for them out of which to burst.

None of the above means that Ferris Bueller is a bad film. It isn’t. John Hughes is a clever filmmaker. But I hope he doesn’t expect us to take Ferris Bueller to our hearts, into that spacious niche reserved for rogues. For Ferris is a very timid, middle-class rogue, and his sense of fun is jaded.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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