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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

by on 2011/09/28

“He’s going to be a fry cook on Venus.”

* * * *

In the mid-1980s, I was in my mid-teens, but my age didn’t keep me from doing the town with my folks. Especially when going out could mean going to the theatre, as my mother agreed to do one day, for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The movie made a significant impact, winning my allegiance to the efforts of the writer/director John Hughes.

As with another video, Never Say Never Again, my sister and I later wore out a tape, playing and replaying favourite scenes. (Jeanie and Rooney in the kitchen, I’m looking at you!) I even typed up the dialogue, with a VHS player at one hand, and an Atari ST at the other.

What would Hughes himself have thought of such fanaticism? Was he crafting a light adventure, or meditating on the fears of youth at the edge of forever? I see potential in both; it’s too eccentric to be weighty, and a shade too subtle for pedantics.

The day off in question concerns three teens: Ferris Bueller (The Freshman’s Matthew Broderick), his best friend Cameron Frye (Star Trek: Generations‘ Alan Ruck), and girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Timecop’s Mia Farrow). Together they enact an intricate plot and a whirlwind tour of Chicago. Determined to scuttle their plan, dean of students Edward Rooney (Amadeus‘ Jeffrey Jones) stages an assault on Bueller’s home.

The story serves as a framework for a series of vignettes. Threads following Rooney, and Ferris’ sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), are intercut with the short adventures of the main trio gallivanting. It’s never realistic, and rarely serious, in truth a fantasy.

Suspension of disbelief is likely essential. We’re meant to accept two seniors and a junior have set up, coded, and hacked — on the fly — a sampler, multiple answering machines, stereos, doorbells, and a rigged mannequin. They steal cars, scam authority, and do other improbable things. All the while reality adapts to accommodate Ferris: his friends forgive his occasional missteps, the city shifts into a musical mode, and the world unifies to “Save Ferris”, who’s widely (and wrongly) believed to be terribly ill.

In this fantastic Chicago, all the adults run the gamut between ignorant, through confused and stupid, to outright criminal. And although our hero is technically a juvenile delinquent, his goals are fairly harmless, if self-indulgent. His pretentious, ineffectual nemesis, Rooney, is at least as much in the wrong, but with the more sinister stated goal of threatening Ferris’ future.

I mused how it all stands in contrast to Rebel Without A Cause. The adults are equally impotent, but rarely as altruistic, whereas Ferris is just as rebellious, but in service of more selfish values. Ostensibly enjoying life, in practical terms he’s a hedonist, decadent, and enjoying the fruits of his station. He harnesses technology, appreciates high culture, luxuriates in entitlement, and spouts hypocrisies.

Positioned between the Christ figure of Teorema and the vengeful High Plains Drifter, he may well be unreal, dispensing a kind of justice. He even possesses control over the production’s postmodern tricks. He routinely breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience, conjures on-screen text, and appears in a post-credits coda.

Cameron observes of him — regarding typical teen concerns — “There’s nothing he can’t handle . . . school, parents, future. Ferris can do anything.” Ironically, those rarest of times Ferris loses control include two instances when Cameron is in distress, twice, near the beginning and end of the tale. Without a disciple to save, what becomes of the saviour?

Now, to be clear, I don’t think most will see Ferris in this way, and neither should they need to. It’s a gallery tour and more. It succeeds on multiple levels, yet is nothing less than exuberant. It’s peppered with interesting touches, like Rooney changing speeds in a hall, cameos by How to Speak Hip’s Del Close and fan favourite Ben Stein, and references to WarGames, Mr. Mom, and Vacation.

But what struck me most in this viewing was how the film rewards the rewatcher. I’ve seen it literally dozens of times, end to end, over the years, never noticing the phrase “fry cook on Venus”. Discovering this overlooked line was a revelation. Decidedly, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I found a new depth and potential I hadn’t remembered. It doesn’t have a lot to say, but it says it very well.

* * * *

Rated PG13

103 minutes

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