Retro Review: Ferris Beuller’s Day Off


 

The 1980s teen comedy genre isn’t a field known for producing great art or artists. Nostalgia blinds most contemporary viewers to the weed and fornication-fueled subversion beneath the presentable Reagan-era exterior. As film critics have pointed out, Hollywood got even more subversive in reaction to the conservative political turn. And shlock abounded between the propaganda.

 

If there’s one teen comedy director who could be looked back on as an honest craftsman, it’s former National Lampoon scribe John Hughes. Parts of his catalogue might be corny or vulgar, but on balance his movies were made with heart – a rare commodity these days.

 

For my money, the Hughes film with the most heart is the lesser masterpiece – after Gen X anthem The Breakfast Club – but the fan favorite, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

 

Full disclosure: I used to discount Ferris Bueller as a fluffy bit of silly fun. But on a recent umpteenth viewing, I spotted themes and structural touches that conveyed hidden meanings only accessible after the West’s descent into Clown World.

 

To get the rather straightforward plot synopsis out of the way, Hughes invites us to join picaresque teenaged fixer Bueller on his last caper before graduating high school. In the course of the movie Ferris orchestrates a series of cunning deceptions to make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. But instead of bank heists and bombings, Ferris uses his wits, technical know-how, and limitless confidence to flummox the authority figures standing between him and a good time.

 

The even shorter version is that he fakes sick to cut class and spend an afternoon in Chicago with his friends.

 

It sounds simple, and it is. You’ll find no complex Tarantino style plotting here.

 

FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

 

Where Hughes’ genius shines is in his characterization and themes. And Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  might be his richest picture in both regards.

 

Which, against expectations, makes this comedy romp Hughes’ most haunting movie in retrospect.

 

If you think I’m kidding, or putting on airs, consider the context.

 

Ferris is the quintessential Gen Xer, born in the first year of that cohort. His parents – and all authority figures that make up the movie’s antagonists – are Baby Boomers.

 

Chief among them is Ed Rooney,  the Dean of Students who pursues Ferris like an obsessed police inspector, though more Zenigata than Javert. Rooney’s stated motive at the beginning of the film is to give Ferris some much-needed discipline so he doesn’t ruin his future. But as Rooney’s arc unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that he’s out for petty revenge.

 

Remember, this movie came out when the Boomer generation, who’d spent their youth rebelling against authority, bought into the system and took over as the authority figures. Rooney’s generation fought the system, only to become the system. So Rooney hates Ferris because he waged his own rebellion all throughout school and succeeded. When Rooney says he wants to stop Ferris from ruining his future, he really means he wants to make sure Ferris sells out just like he did.

 

And Ferris knows it. In fact, Ferris knows a lot more than anyone else in the movie. He breaks the fourth wall, and more than once, another character notes how everything always seems to just work out for him. Yet Hughes takes care to show that Bueller’s exploits aren’t just due to dumb luck. We see his meticulous but not obsessive planning. And his depth and breadth of knowledge – including the exact height of the Sears Tower and the precise number of restaurants in downtown Chicago. In this light, Ferris almost looks like an omniscient narrator.

 

It’s also noteworthy that we first meet Ferris at the end of his storied career. A modern director would have opened with him scamming other kids out of their lunch money in third grade, and flashed back to him talking a fifth-grade bully out of thrashing Cameron to explain their friendship’s origin. Of course, we’d have been inundated with flashbacks to Ed Rooney’s many humiliations at Bueller’s hands.

 

But Hughes understands that audiences give great weight to what the people in a story say about each other. They credit other characters’ opinions of the protagonist – even those of a villain like Rooney. So note to writers: Readers love it when you do this.

 

Hughes also understands timing – the heart and soul of comedy. His mastery transcends knowing when to deliver a punchline. So it’s no accident that his movie about a high school prankster begins on one of his last days of school. This is also where Ferris’ uncanny knowledge takes on deeper significance.

 

In his commentary on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, John Hughes mentioned how personal elements of this movie are to him. And it shows in the finished product.

 

Think about it. Here we have the story of a teen rebel who stays true to his code against the same fears and temptations that got the best of the Boomers. Now consider that the story’s writer is also a Boomer.

 

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see the vicarious wish fulfillment trip Hughes indulges in with this movie. And again, another director would have screwed it all up and shat out another piece of solipsistic autoethnography. But Hughes’ motives come across as honest.

 

If only I could go back and do it all over again, knowing what I do now.

 

That’s your explanation for Ferris Bueller right there. He’s a Gen Xer who’s gone back in time armed with the horrible knowledge of Clown World to relive his childhood without fear.

 

So that Boomers can experience vicarious catharsis through him – which is how Boomers have experienced everything since 1979.

 

Ferris lets this subtext slip when he says that he’s pulling the whole complex scheme just for Cameron’s sake. Note all the grim pronouncement Ferris makes about Cameron’s future:

 

  • He and Ferris will go to different colleges, and their friendship will end.
  • His college roommate will hate him for being so uptight.
  • He will marry the girl who takes his virginity.
  • He’ll put his wife on a pedestal, and she’ll resent him for it.

 

As Ferris’ pseudo-omniscient narration indicates, these dread prophecies aren’t speculation. They are knowledge he has of Cameron’s future. Granting that premise, the movie can be taken as a feature-length Quantum Leap episode in which Ferris leaps back to 1986 in order to avert his friend’s ruination.

 

The ways in which Ferris brings about Cameron’s salvation are significant – and nigh on prescient in hindsight. He starts by rejecting Prussian model, state-mandated K-12 education.

 

Visual language of film check: Observe that when Ferris’ sweetheart Sloane is introduced, she’s sitting in an English class in front of a wall paneled in vertical wooden bars while the teacher lectures about prison symbolism in literature.

 

 

And while the movie upholds the common wisdom that college is necessary to have any kind of future, it gets in some implied critiques of the Boomer universal college paradigm. College looms over the movie like a storm cloud on the horizon. It’s stated in no uncertain terms that going to college will destroy Cameron and Ferris’ friendship, and even Ferris sees it as a daunting obstacle to his courtship of Sloane. You could even call it a secondary antagonist.

 

Keep in mind, nobody would have questioned the wisdom of everybody going to college back in 1986. But Ferris comes close.

 

Then we have the aforementioned critique of Boomerism, personified in Cameron’s dad’s prized Ferrari.

 

Movie goof: You need a front license plate in Illinois. Don’t ask how I know.

 

Hollywood has long recognized the automobile as the symbol of American power, wealth, and freedom. So it can’t be a coincidence that this movie’s iconic car is owned by a materialistic, neurotic, workaholic Boomer who gives it the affection he denies his son.

 

What does the prophetic Gen Xer out to save his friend do with the car? He steals it from the greedy, absentee Boomer dad, takes his best buddy and main squeeze on a righteous joyride, and [SPOILER ALERT] stands by as it’s destroyed.

 

And before that, in another subtle red pill, Ferris leaves the priceless ride in the hands of two minorities who steal it for some joyriding of their own.

 

But the scene that’s the most haunting now is the museum sequence.

 

Dismissed by many, even the director, as a bit of artistic self-indulgence, Ferris’ & Co’s visit to the Chicago Art Institute has deep resonance today. For Gen Y viewers in particular.

 

 

The scene opens with a tour group of grade school kids. It’s 1986, which makes these youngsters members of Generation Y. Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron insert themselves into the younger cohort’s field trip for some whimsical fun.

 

Lest you think I’m seeing patterns where none exist, watch the scene with the director’s commentary.

 

John Hughes commentary - The Museum scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off

 

Note the demographics of the Gen Y tour group. Then go back and make the same observation about the makeup of Ben Stein’s economics class.

 

That’s a trenchant reminder that in the 80s, movies could depict people’s everyday experiences. Because it wasn’t yet secular heresy to notice and discuss what everybody saw outside their windows.

 

It’s also a reminder to get your copy of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on physical media before the Death Cult gets around to censoring it.

 

And get your copy of my breakout mil-SF novel inspired by landmark 80s mecha.

Originally published here.


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Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON