Take Two: Do I Still Hate Ferris Bueller?
Our weekly series in which writers revisit for the first time in ages their youthful passions and reconsider how well they hold up with the passage of time.
When “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: was released in 1986, I was 17 years old ( a surly, difficult 17 years old); which is to say,I was the exact same age as the character Ferris Bueller; which is to say, the worst possible age to enjoy a film about him.
To this put in some context, growing up in the late 1970’s and early 80’s was a glorious time to be a very young movie-goer. Comedies in particular – were at their most bawdy and anarchic, which is exactly what a 10 year old boy wants. We were allowed to see on the screen in those days all sorts things that it is now horrifying to imagine a 10 year old was allowed to see; but as a 10 year old, it was amazing.
In particular, I grew up in the wake of that first wave of teen sex comedies that ran roughly from “Animal House” in 1978 to “Porky’s 2: The Next Day” in 1983. In those five glorious years of underage moviegoing, I built up fantasies of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” days that lay ahead for me, both in real life, and and in my on-screen counter-parts.
Then along came the high 80’s. And what that meant for the teen sex comedies was - along came John Hughes.
The change crept in quietly. Hughes’ debut film, “Sixteen Candles” was ribald enough that my increasingly surly teen self could ignore the 1950’s well-manicured vibe of suburban contentment about the film. But in “The Breakfast Club” ironically, when Hughes attempted to plumb the depths of teenage angst, was when we made our break.
If you’re a surly angst-ridden teen, there is nothing more upsetting than seeing a middle-aged, midwestern dad’s take on surly angst-ridden teens. Particularly presented in a glossy PG-rated, finely calibrated package that seemed an insult to the ramshackle comedies of the years just past, whose chaos was their selling point. If you were younger than the characters in “The Breakfast Club”, their pathos must have felt like the authentic thing in the world. To those 10 years older than the character, “The Breakfast Club” was a sharp eyed look at contemporary teen alienation. To those of the exact same age as those characters, it was an abomination; a completely off-base, failure to grasp the complexity of what we teens were going through.
And then, and then there was “Ferris Beuller.” If the coffin on the R-rated teen comedy had been sealed long before 1986, Ferris came to Twist and Shout on its grave. Leaping unmistakably into a realm of PG suburban contentment, Ferris was a film about teens for 11 year olds, with all the rough edges smoothed down to a gentle gloss. It seemed at the time, nothing less than the end of cinema. I went to see it in its first week and emerged, horrified, disgusted, and I haven’t looked back since. Hughes’ subsequent dive into unabashed treacle did nothing to make me question my distaste.
Nearly 25 years later, I am a father and angst takes a backseat in my day to acid reflux. And no longer seeing teenage surlyness as quite the badge of pride I once did, I settled in to go back to Ferris and his wonderful day of hooky from school.
First off, the starkest difference from the glossy sugar-coated teens-for-kids Ferris of my memory, was just how hard-edged much of the film is. It is, indeed, set in a cozy upper-middle class world where social angst has been burnished away. But beneath that, Ferris’ vision of the world is shockingly discontented for a character that we remember as having the world wrapped around his finger, and his mischievous hi-jinx spring from a deeply held contempt for all around him. He spells out his world view in an extended monologue delivered to the camera, while taking a shower early in the film. Referring to the history test in European socialism that he’ll be missing on his Day Off, Ferris asks, “Who gives a crap about socialism,” continuing, the anger rising, the contrast telling more than you can believe : “I don’t have a car!”
High school in this film is as an unredeemed purgatory where its inmates slowly fester and crumble to ashes; personified by Ben Stein droning to a roomfull of stupified slackjawed students. Ferris’ parents walk the line between smugly aloof and grotesquely materialistically aloof, complaining about “closing the damn deal with the Vermont people!”
There’s a recurring nastiness to Ferris’ tone, as when he tells the snooty maitre d’ of the french restaurant he has conned his way into: “It’s understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself.” One gets the sense that he’s not speaking in his Captain of Industry character when he delivers that put down.
Beyond that, what stands out, and probably part of what got under my skin when I was 16 is how stodgy Ferris’ day off is. Jeff Spicoli used his ditch time to get stoned in a van; the heroes of “Porky’s” spent their time trying to hire a prostitute from a nightclub. Ferris goes to an art museum, a baseball game, sings a Beatles song and eats at a French restaurant. The visit the commodities exchange; all while wearing a suit and driving his friend’s father’s car. Whatever is brewing in Ferris’ soul – and apart from the initial monologue Hughes is careful to stay far away from that – when given a magic carpet ride of a day, he decides, to be his father for a day. So closely does he emulate his father’s life that he keeps bumping into him during the course of the day.
(Whatever Oedipal themes are lurking under the surface here bubble over in a horrific way in the moment when girlfriend Sloane, disguised under giant sunglasses, seductively blows kisses and makes eyes at Ferris’ father in a neighboring taxi.)
Seeing this in an older man’s clothes however, Ferris’ choices don’t seem quite so bad; even admirable. When I was a teen I snorted at the trio’s trip to the art museum and Hughes’ shallow attempt to give his characters depth via Great Art. These days, what would I give to see a teenager cut school to go to an art museum and make a shallow attempt to wallow in Great Art. The idea of a teenager ever doing that in a broad commercial film today is just about unthinkable. Admittedly, I am now an older man, approving of the teens opting for old peoples’ activities, so I suppose the irony is on me, but there it is.
It has to be said, seeing it now, the film has its charms. There’s a real energy, especially in the first half to Ferris’ machinations. And while, it’s not “The River’s Edge” neither is it completely soulless.
It seemed clear in this watching that the story of the chronically depressed best friend played by Alan Ruck is the true soul of the film, which could be alternately titled “Saving Mr. Cameron.” Ferris is a Mary Poppins-like magical character who comes to bring a little cheer into the life of his depressed friend, whom like the Banks children, is estranged from his father.
While Ferris is entirely without character arc or personal movement in his journey, Cameron is a fully drawn character; paralyzed by self-doubt and fear brought on by his unseen tyrannical father, and his slow escape from crippling anxieties are played subtly and movingly throughout the film, by the final act taking over the film entirely.
The same can’t be said for the girlfriend character played by Mia Sara. Sloane appears to be shuffling through the film version of a date where she spends an entire evening without the man ever asking her a question about herself. It’s fairly shocking how the film doesn’t even try to make her a character, doesn’t even give a nod to maybe she has a hobby, maybe she likes a certain kind of food, any personal characteristic other than being Ferris’ girlfriend and dressing hot. She is in almost every scene, speaks about a dozen words total, none of them remotely memorable or personal.
There is a bizarre moment when Ferris, seemingly out of boredom during one of the films too-frequent lulls, blurts out “Do you want to get married?” A proposal Sloane shrugs off with the explanation “What do you mean why not?’ Whatever the lowest possible score is on the Bechtel test, Hughes earns it for Sloane’s character.
The pacing and the comedy are wildly uneven. Once Ferris and pals hit the road, the film slows to a crawl. The slapstick bits involving the principal stalking the Bueller house bringing to mind the saddest scenes poor Herbert Lom was forced to limp through in the very late Pink Panther films.
On the upside however, is Jennifer Grey, whose wrath as the ignored older sister holds up beautifully; the film’s biggest laughs come are hers.
Overall Ferris is not a great film, but I can admit now, it has its moments. It’s surprisingly sharp in surprising points and three young actors (Broderick, Grey and Ruck) give first rate, energetic performances.
That said, while decades later, it’s difficult to relate to what bothered me so much about the film, I can understand why it did. Jeff Spicoli’s ghost looms over every frame, as he was forced to surrender the crown of counter-culture teen icon to a much shinier, safer, more driven model; to a bad boy anyone’s mother could love.