Why ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Isn’t About Who You Think It Is6 min read
Ferris Bueller is the reason I ruined my chance at getting into a posh private school.
Here’s what happened — in 1990, my mother was a teacher at this elite school, which gave me a slight edge during the application process. What the school required was a solid GPA and a written essay.
I wrote a passionate ode to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), my favorite film at the time (I was 13-years old). My essay made the case that Bueller, the detached, restless and motivated teen who risks everything for a day away from high school, was a similar figure to Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s generation-defining 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Caulfield and Buller both expressed disdain for adult authority figures (to say the least) and are alienated and soulful. My essay was rejected, because (as a member of the application process informed me much later) that my adoration of Bueller undermined my thesis.
Apparently, presenting myself as a bright 13-year-old student, whose cinematic hero was a con artist with a gift for truancy and making every single adult in his life come across as a moron, didn’t win over a room full of educators.
I wound up going to a different, very eclectic high school (my graduating class celebrates our 25th anniversary this month), so it turned out well in the end, though I blame Ferris Bueller for getting me tossed out of a prospective school…which I suspect Bueller himself would have considered a victory.
Matthew Broderick plays Bueller, whose intricate methods of getting himself, his best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) and his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) out of school for a day inspire a boneheaded high school principal (Jeffrey Jones) to risk his career to catch him in the act.
Bueller is highly articulate and extremely chatty with us — Broderick is the only actor to pull off talking to the camera and breaking the fourth wall this well (no, not even Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards” was this good at doing the most unnatural thing a film actor should do).
John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a fantasy, every bit as much as his prior film, “Weird Science” (1985) was also a juvenile wish fulfillment romp. It’s also a wildly stylish comedy, a rare quality among most American farces, particularly teen comedies.
This film, as well as Hughes’ subsequent “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), which is his masterpiece, and “She’s Having a Baby” (1988), demonstrate how bold and inventive a filmmaker he was. For a figure in the American film scene who is best known for writing high school comedies, Hughes’ abilities behind the camera as an intelligent visualist of his concepts, a master of blending tones like a perfectly balanced mix tape and a famously ruthless trimmer of his art in the editing room, made him a real film artist.
He was enormously popular but, now that he’s no longer with us, we should lean a little closer and acknowledge how brilliant his best work is.
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The soundtrack is a marvelously quirky mix-tape of different genres (Ira Newborn’s score, which hilariously punctuates the biggest laughs, works alongside many lesser known, European song sleepers). Hughes nails the pop culture references and often does it musically — note the ode to “Star Wars” or how, when Bueller’s mother creeps slowly towards his bedroom, the score suggests a slasher movie.
There’s also a funny nod to Broderick’s computer acumen from “WarGames” (1983).
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is about how painfully frustrating it is to have a friend who seems touched by the gods, capable of surviving every gauntlet he encounters and impervious to any long-term consequences. Bueller is Bugs Bunny or Axel Foley, someone who can talk himself out of every situation and never be caught off guard.
Cameron, on the other hand, is Ferris’ best friend and is a complete opposite; where Ferris’ life appears eternally charmed, Cameron is a depressed hypochondriac whose relationship with his neglectful father is slowly killing him.
The temptation is to focus on all the scenes that make this a classic: the impromptu lunch date with “Abe Frohman, the Sausage King of Chicago,” the awesome parade scene with a startlingly epic scale, the bored valets who have the afternoon joyride of their lives, and on and on.
Yet, it’s Hughes’ decision to linger on Cameron and get inside his head (we hear Bueller’s plans and commentary but he’s too cool for us mere mortals) that makes this so poignant.
Note the beautiful museum scene, where Cameron’s gaze lingers on the little girl on Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” with his eyes burning into the portrait. Cameron is getting as close as he can to the image and sees, at its core, are tiny splotches of paint.
Hughes is doing the same thing to Cameron, penetrating his tortured soul and giving voice to his very real problems. I’m not convinced that the film should leave him when it does, as the scenario that develops is so drastic, I’m unsure that the optimism of the moment is earned.
I do, however, appreciate greatly how Bueller is quick to offer a defense for his friend, which is the most heroic thing he does on his day off.
This surprise detour into teen heartache, akin to the emotional power and truths within Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” (1985), is the element that makes this more than a live-action cartoon, albeit a thoroughly enjoyable and marvelously crafted one. When Bueller does his final sprint home, racing not just the clock but those who’ve been chasing him all day, Hughes, of all things, stages this as a deft action sequence.
Is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” really about how, in the words of the title character, life moves pretty fast and, if we don’t stop and look around once in a while, we might miss it? Of course not.
Hughes’ film isn’t about taking it easy, as evidenced by the intricate methods, elaborate, multiple long-cons and brushes with dumb luck that get him through the day. Bueller works awfully hard for the kind of day off he could have had if he simply waited for the weekend.
No, the film isn’t really about celebrating taking a break or how we all need a vacation. What this is actually about is coming to terms with who you are and not what your parents or the world is telling you to be. Cameron is the equivalent of Benjamin Braddock, the similarly disaffected, madly unhappy, insecure and unsure about his future teen played by Dustin Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” (1967).
The two both take detached swan dives into a swimming pool, and, by the ending of both films, Benjamin and Cameron have found independence and self-worth by making drastic mistakes and finding courage in their big what-now closing moments.
It’s Cameron who is the real star of this film and not Ferris Bueller, who is more of a delightful plot device than a real person. Bueller has no character arch and is exactly the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.
It’s hard to be best friend of someone like Bueller. Cameron is trying to get through an entire day just being himself, whereas Bueller is having the time of his life playing a joke on his entire town. What Bueller pulls off is impressive (in the same way the Road Runner’s defeating Wile E. Coyote is impressive) but Cameron is a brave, fractured soul and Hughes rightfully makes him the actual focus.
Hughes’ film was a massive hit, became an oft-quoted classic and is still one of the sharpest high school comedies of its decade. Yet, Hughes created a formula that couldn’t be replicated; note how there’s no sequel, just two uninspired 1990 televised attempts to adapt the material.
The Charlie Schlatter/Jennifer Aniston dud, “Ferris Bueller,” aired on NBC for all of one season while “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” the three-season rip-off on FOX, can’t compare.
Hughes’ film, like Broderick’s pitch perfect performance, is lightening in a bottle.
Because the film is so cheerful, propulsive in its pacing and agreeably implausible, it surpasses being tossed off as merely a 1980s relic. Yet, its Hughes’ ability to explore not just the wild spirit of Ferris Bueller but the aching existence of Cameron Frye that makes it not just a great comedy but one with heart and purpose.