When John Hughes died of a heart attack at age 59 in 2009, the filmmaking world lost one of its true greats in the comedy realm. His biggest box-office smashes as a writer have been family movies in the 1990s, such as Home Alone and 101 Dalmatians. Earlier, however, John Hughes had already pulled off a string of beloved comedies as a director in the 1980s. The Breakfast Club comes to mind. So do Plains, Trains & Automobiles and Uncle Buck with another late great, John Candy. John Hughes is also known for coming up with the scripts for the popular National Lampoon’s series starring Chevy Chase. Yet the finest moment of his career is arguably Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Everybody loves Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick). Even though nobody really knows what the teenager is up to, he’s the most popular kid at his high school – and he knows every trick in the book. The streetwise Ferris can get away with basically anything. One fine morning, he wakes up and decides to skip school. When he takes the day off, so must his best friends. Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) is slightly depressive and constantly worries about all the world and his mother, but his dad owns a Ferrari. The boy is reluctantly persuaded to ‘borrow’ the prized Italian car so that they can get Ferris’s girlfriend, Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara), out of class and spend an awesome day in Chicago.
All the while, snappish and suspicious dean of students Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and Ferris’s jealous sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) try to remain hot on their heels. Both of them know all about the boy’s tricks and want to catch him in the act for their own reasons. One plans to take revenge because the teenager has been constantly making a fool out of him for years; the other is frustrated because Ferris always seems to go scot-free with his ploys. Busting him is easier said than done, however, because he remains an ‘angel’ in the eyes of his parents – and to the public. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and he is out to enjoy every last second of it
‘Bueller…? Bueller…? Bueller…?’
Who are we kidding here? No-one would’ve loved having to go a school occupied by teachers such as the ones Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane are exposed to. Granted, these characters are but a mild exaggeration, courtesy of John Hughes, but you get the point. Nobody in their right mind could blame our hero for taking a day off from these slowpokes. After all, there are much better things to do, especially when the weather is nice, right?
Those attending school – let’s call them ‘the righteous ones’ for a second – can definitely feel Ferris’s mental pain. They’d rather be somewhere else as well, for they’re bored as hell by the teachers that be. ‘Bueller to the rescue,’ but he only comes to save his cheerleader girlfriend Sloane from the terrors of high school. The rest remains stuck in the netherworlds while worrying about poor Ferris’s well-being.
‘Oh, Ed. You just sounded like Dirty Harry just then.’
The teachers in general probably couldn’t care less about our hero. His only problem is, however, that Ed Rooney, the dean of students, does. He has made it his pet project to bust Ferris’s butt, because the younger Bueller has gotten the better of him all the time. Rooney rules his school with an iron fist – which explains the Dirty Harry reference by his secretary Grace (Edie McClurg) – only that Ferris always manages to weasel out of every tricky situation in the book and you can’t even resent him for doing so.
Ed comes close to catching his troublemaking student several times. Yet Bueller junior is always a step ahead of the dean except for one moment, in which someone completely unexpected comes to his aid. When all is said and done, however, Rooney once again gets the short end of the stick and our hero has the last laugh. The movie might as well be called Don’t Mess With Ferris Bueller. Because if you do, he messes about with you.
‘I asked for a car. I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?’
The younger generation will probably stare in bewilderment, while everyone else will smirk or even grin like a Cheshire cat at Ferris’s comment. We’re talking the mid-1980s, after all, when people still had different priorities and an own set of wheels was about the greatest thing a teenager could imagine. The junior Bueller doesn’t have a car. Instead, he’s the proud possessor of a personal computer and some other technical gadgets.
Let’s face it: those machines were a far cry from the data processors we’re used to nowadays – no hard drives but diskettes or tapes as preferred data carriers, monochrome screens, and modem connections that were painfully slow – yet Ferris makes the best of it. He gets creative and uses the technology at his disposal to fake a brutal illness by creating strange noises with his synthesizer/sampler and to erase all doubts about his motivation by deleting his days absent record from the school’s server. All of a sudden, having a computer doesn’t look so bad anymore, does it?
‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’
The period Ferris comes from wasn’t yet as fast-paced as the world we live in today. For that reason, his life motto is probably truer than ever in a more contemporary setting. Yet John Hughes’s film was ahead of its time for a comedy when released in 1986 for its impeccable use of pop music and some techniques drawn from the French nouvelle vague. Our hero directly addressing the camera on several occasions, for instance, is one of them. By him doing so, we essentially learn two things.
For starters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is never meant as a serious experience. It lampoons the American school system and the culture of the 1980s, although it naturally has to be taken with a grain of salt or two. Secondly, we’re always in the middle of the action. John Hughes and his protagonist make us their accomplices as Ferris and his friends skip school. We receive an insider status, as if we belonged to Bueller’s exclusive ‘inner circle.’ He takes us to the Sears Tower, a top-notch French restaurant, and one of the grand parades in downtown Chicago. We learn all about his tricks and schemes, probably more than any other person in the entire universe.
‘Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.’
For a comedy that already more than a quarter-century under its belt, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off holds up surprisingly well. Then again, kids playing truant is a topic that never gets old. Admittedly, haven’t we all wanted to be at least a little bit like the hero of John Hughes’s classic movie? The film was an instant hit back in the day, also because the director managed to recruit a fine ensemble of hot up-and-comers.
Matthew Broderick had just appeared in John Badham’s sci-fi thriller War Games and has had a decent career in Hollywood, with starring roles in Edward Zwick’s Glory and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. Alan Ruck went on to become a prominent cast member of the hit show Spin City alongside Michael J. Fox and, incidentally, everyone’s favorite enfant terrible Charlie Sheen, who here plays a juvenile delinquent in a police station.
Jennifer Grey had just starred in John Frankenheimer’s Red Dawn and became world-famous with Dirty Dancing a year later, while Jeffrey Jones has always hung around and been casted in (usually) smaller roles in a multitude of good movies. Only the cute Mia Sara virtually seems to have fallen off the face of the earth when it comes to starring roles since, for whatever reason. Like everyone else, she does a fine job in the role of Sloane Peterson.
There have been countless rumors of a sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, again with Matthew Broderick as the eponymous hero. It still remains to be seen if that project will ever make it to the big screen or whether it’s actually a good idea at all. To a certain degree, it’s probably a testament to the greatness of the late John Hughes and his original movie. In case you want a heartwarming fun flick that virtually embodies America in the 1980s, look no further than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.