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For Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) this is old hat. But this time it’s special. He’s about to graduate, so taking one last day off has got to be something great. Once the parents have bought his story, it’s now time to convince Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) to do the same, mostly because he has a car. Turns out Frye really is sick though, but gives in once he realizes that Bueller isn’t gonna stop calling. Truth is, Ferris is just that kinda guy. He’s funny, charming, and very popular. Everyone likes him. The sportos and motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastetoids, dweebies, dickheads . . . they all think he’s a righteous dude. Well, all except for two people. First, his sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is jealous of all the attention, and second, Edward R. Rooney (Jeffery Jones) the Dean of Students who has had enough of Bueller’s antics. He’s setting a bad example for all the other students. The two of them are committed to exposing Ferris for the fraud he truly is. Good luck with that.
Written and directed by legendary teen-angst movie maker, John Hughes, Ferris Bueller is a light-hearted trip into the world of a boy who tricks his way to having whatever he wants, is adored by nearly every person he meets, and gets away with just about anything, including the spontaneous hijacking of the The Von Steuben Day Parade in downtown Chicago where he jumps onto a float and breaks into Twist and Shout. For reasons that are obvious, everyone joins in and soon 10,000 people are singing and dancing along. Just like it would be in real life! Okay, so maybe there’s a few moments where we must suspend our disbelief, but the film is so entertaining and so self-aware, that from start to finish, it’s pure joy.
Scene Setup: Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron have returned from their adventure in Chicago. They’d “borrowed” Cameron’s father’s incredibly rare 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder convertible, something that Frye fought against doing but, as always, gave in to Bueller’s relentless pressure. Unfortunately, after parking it in a garage where some attendants took it on a joy ride, the classic car now has a lot of miles on the odometer and Cameron’s father is going to blow his mind if he finds out. The boys think if they prop up the rear axle and run it in reverse, the numbers will roll back. It doesn’t and now Frye is about to have a moment.
Why it matters: Maybe a little surprising that I haven’t chosen a scene that features Ferris in a review about him, but watching the film again for this review, and there were a number of scenes that are memorable, it is here where Cameron decides to take a stand that leaves the strongest impact. It matters because while surely the movie is about Bueller and the fantastical life we would all want to live, the real story is Cameron, and it is his arc that proves the most satisfying. Actor Alan Ruck was 29 playing a teenager at the time and perhaps some of the maturity lent itself to giving the character some added depth. The sudden shift to drama, and the powerful performance by Ruck (and even Sara and Broderick) are memorizing, especially in a film where laughter has been the driving force. Sure, we knew something was up with Frye, most particularly at the Art Institute of Chicago as he finds himself lost in the painted face of a young child in Georges-Pierre Seurat‘s, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But the transformation for Cameron is shocking and for anyone watching, entirely up-lifting. We never meet the father who seems to have shaped the boy harshly, but we can feel his power nonetheless. “I gotta take a stand,” Cameron says. He certainly seems ready.
More: So why do we need it? Why is it important, in a movie about Ferris Bueller’s day off, to stop and spend some quality time with his best friend? Because the best friend is really the hero of our story. Ferris, just like David Lightman in WarGames, is the anti-hero, the character who gets away with everything and still earns our forgiveness. With Frye, he has been the victim, the loser in all of this . . . until now, and suddenly we have hope again. For most anyone in the audience, that is why we go to the movies. Cameron becomes the only character in the film to evolve, to solve his problems, and will undoubtedly be the most successful of the group. While Ferris will most assuredly spend the rest of his life playing tricks on his folks to keep alive that fragile and fraudulent relationship intact, at least Cameron will have faced his father and whatever the outcome, the truth is now out there, even if it is in the form of a smashed Ferrari. Let’s watch:
Adults as buffoons is nothing new in movies. Teenagers spend a lot of money at the movies so why not have kids or teens in the role of the hero(es). Matthew Broderick was the absolute king of this trope for most of the 80s and his smarmy on-screen personality and confident persona exemplified the archetype, setting a standard that still exists.
In Ferris Bueller, it goes a step further by inviting the audience in on the act. Ferris reveals his secrets, offering tips for the uninitiated. This is most prevalent in the early scenes, setting up the character and the tone of the film. When Ferris first let’s us in, it’s not only welcome, it’s a signal that, no, we’re not the fools in Bueller’s world. We’re in on it. After he’s been lying in bed feigning sickness for his oblivious parents – in what he calls his “worst “performance” – he sits up and looks us straight in the eye. “They bought it,” he smiles, as if we’re cohorts in his scheme. He knows we’re smarter than his folks. Of course we are. This is actually a relief because we can clearly see that his histrionics are a show, and by inviting us in on the guise, we feel a lot more comfortable. In fact, we want to be participatory. Tell us more! And he does. For the next few scenes, Ferris gives a guided tour of his past exploits and a running commentary on just about anything, from European socialism to how best to have clammy hands when pretending to be sick (lick the palms). That last one even uses the screen as a method of delivery, adding text to the image as Bueller explains how to fake an illness. It’s a genius addition, used only once, which is exactly the right amount of times. Ferris is about keeping it fresh. His style is adaptive and spontaneous. We never see the same trick twice. We are constantly trying to keep up. That’s the point. In the brief opening montage as he explains his situation, he is seen in different outfits each time, even though the time passing can’t possible be more than a few minutes. We don’t care. Like life in Jurassic Park, Ferris finds a way. His room, a bedazzling collection of carefully chosen paraphernalia, is a treasure trove of mind-traps and gadgets that subtly reminds us that this is not an ordinary teenager. He complains that his parents didn’t buy him a car, instead giving him a computer. Yet sitting next to said computer is a collection of electronics, including a hi-fi audio stack and E-MU Emulator II (or II+ model) synthesizer, which in 1986 averaged around $8,000! One could buy a pretty decent car for that price back then, and still have enough left over for clarinet lessons.
So who is Ferris Bueller? Why is he so remarkable? Sure, John Hughes embellishes his teens with exaggerated characteristics, but Ferris is far removed from the likes of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. While those films take plenty of liberties, they are still grounded in reality. The kids have insecurities, are vulnerable, don’t know what to say to the opposite sex, and are filled with angst. Ferris is anything but. He’s practically a grown man in a teenager’s body. He’s wise well past his years, has tenacity, is clever, and soundly believes one can never go too far. He’s also selfish, manipulative, self-centered, and a bit dastardly (that’s right, we said dastardly!). From dealing with Cameron and his parens, to asking his high school girlfriend to marry him, he is impulsive and narrow minded. But he’s also endearing. How is that possible? No matter his intentions, he still seems like he cares. And perhaps he does. Truthfully, he might very well be a genius, with life as a high school student being just too darned easy. Where’s the challenge? Well, that comes in running his schemes (there’s even a nod to WarGames with his changing the number of days absent on the computer, similarly to how he changed his grades. Was Pencil the password?). So well known, in just one afternoon, news of his illness spreads across town like a wildfire. By mid-day the water tower is repainted with SAVE FERRIS stenciled on the side, truckloads of flowers are being delivered, and students in school are taking a collection. We can only dream of that kind of popularity. He’s a teenager’s idol and an adult’s nightmare.
And the adult suffering the worst from that nightmare is most definitely Mr. Rooney. Has there ever been a more pathetic adult in a teen comedy? Cast as the villain, Rooney is the perfect nemesis for Ferris. He has authority which can be exploited, is easily manipulated, goes to extremes to undermine what simply cannot be undermined, and is hopelessly convinced his cheese will never be left out in the wind. No, we don’t know what that means either, but coming from Rooney, it . . . well it still doesn’t makes sense, but sure is funny. As is just about everything the Dean of Students does, even if it just from running down the hallway.
So what does it all mean? What can we take away? As a kid, this movie was an entirely different experience than it is as a grown up. As a teen, Ferris was everything we wanted to be. How closely could we get our bedrooms to look like his? (Not even.) Was there any way to dress like him and be as cool? (No. A most emphatic no. Those pants looked ridiculous!) And could there pretty please be even the slightest remotest chance to ever get a girl like Sloane? (*Sigh*). As an adult, we see the troublesome kid he really is, but what makes him special is we would still trade places for day, no doubt about it. Youth is a precious thing and Ferris understands that. The snooty Maitre’d says he weeps for the future when he encounters Ferris and his friends. Well the future has come and things seem just about okay, Ferris or no. Life moves pretty fast . . .
There is so much still to enjoy about this single day in the life of a seemingly magical high school student. There’s his hostile sister and her turn around with the drug-addled Charlie Sheen. The wonderful Grace the Secretary and of course the closing credits with Mr. Rooney. Yello’s “Oh Yeah” still spins in our head when we see a school bus roll by. But no matter the laughs and antics of Ferris, it is always his best friend Cameron that sticks strongest in our memories. He is the one we identify with with most and the one we are most curious about where he ended up.
Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jeffery Jones