Hughes #1 – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

The Cubs game makes sense (they always played during the day in the 80s), but what the hell was the parade for!?

The Story

Ferris (Matthew Broderick) decides to take a sick day from school because fuck school. He takes his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) on a trip to Chicago where they take in a Cubs game, check out a museum, and incite mass singing and dancing at a parade, all while ducking the sinister Dean Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and Ferris’s own jealous sister (Jennifer Grey). Although the day ends with the neurotic Cameron ready to face up to his unseen father for his actions, Ferris gets home just in time to avoid any consequences at all.

“Cameron who?”

The Production

I’ve written about John Hughes’s superhuman writing ability in the past, but this is a joke, right? In March of 1985, just as The Breakfast Club success had anointed Hughes as the God King of the Teenagers, the director took a call from his agent reminding him that the writer’s guild would soon strike and advising him to get any dangling script ideas down on paper before he had to legally stop working. Hughes thought up an idea on the spot, pitched it to Paramount the next day, received the green light, and then churned out an entire feature screenplay before the strike. From idea to script. In. One. Week. So of course, Hughes moved right into filming soon after the strike ended, and the result was a mega-hit. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off grossed roughly $70 million 1986 dollars on a $6 million budget, and Hughes proved that, at least during the mid-1980s, he could almost literally spin gold from the air if given a week to do so.

A how-to guide to skipping class! He was printing money in 12-point courier font!!

The Soundtrack

John Hughes carefully chose the perfect tracks for each of his films, but that alone doesn’t prove he was a music nerd. This does: no official soundtrack was released for the film because Hughes didn’t feel the songs fit together well enough to make an album anyone would want. Yes, he refused to release songs from his own film because he didn’t want to give the world yet another obligatory soundtrack album. He did, however, release a vinyl for fans on the Ferris mailing list. The record featured only two tracks—“I’m Afraid” by Blue Room and the Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City”— and copies of the vinyl and extremely rare and collectible today.

The Misfit

Quick, who’s the protagonist in Bueller? Ferris right? He talks to the audience, his name is in the title, and it is indeed his day off. But Cameron is the character who learns and changes the most over the course of the story, actions usually reserved for the story’s hero. Ferris is still Ferris at the end, but Cameron is about to stand up and take control of his life. So Ferris Bueller’s Day Off actually revolves around a dual protagonist, each character acting as the other’s central misfit. Suddenly it all makes sense. Poor Sloane was the third wheel, not Cameron.

Cavity-Inducing Moment

Oh, and speaking of Cameron’s big moment, am I the only one that thinks he was probably beaten to death with a golf club about 10 minutes after the credits? No way this goes well for him. At the least, he’ll find himself bunking with Ted “Theodore” Logan at military school.

Last known photograph of the deceased.

Overall

I believe Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the best movie John Hughes ever directed, but writing about it has been no rodeo. There’s not much I can say that doesn’t feel over said. After all, the internet is thick with Ferris content, with some writers gutting it—CHUD’s Andre Dellamorte calls the film “evil” because it’s about a rich, white kid acting entitled, while Cinematical’s Jacob Hall wrote an article just this week in which he called Ferris a “smug, self-satisfied, manipulative little sh*t”—while others gush blindly over the film in a kind of nostalgia bukkake.

I could have gone with Charlie Sheen or Jeffrey Jones, but I think Ben Stein is the funniest picture to post after a bukkake reference.

Nostalgia sucks, by the way (as does bukkake). Nostalgia has done more harm to movies in the last decade than <insert hack director’s name for easy laugh>, and so I committed to a Ferris Bueller reexamination, to weed out any sneaky influence the 80s might have on my thinking. Or, at least, I tried, but I’m not sure such a thing is possible. Ferris Bueller is intimately tied into my childhood. Like so many former 80s adolescents (80lescents?), I see myself when I see the film.

Many writers choose to align with Cameron, which makes sense. We tend to be mopey types, and uber-writer Hughes himself pointed to Cameron as the Shermer character he most resembled. But me? I was Ferris. Now, I wasn’t remotely as cool or as popular as Ferris, not on your life. But I certainly saw myself as Ferris did. I thought I was the only one who could see that the walls of my high school were built on bullshit. I felt as if I were above the whole process: the classes, the teachers, all of it. I broke every rule that didn’t endanger my own life, I exasperated authority figures, and I nearly flunked school out of spite. It was my way of gaining control, and I spent a lot of time in detention or in long, boring talks with my parents to get it (Again, not Ferris, so I didn’t get away with jack crap.) To put it mildly: I was a smug, self-satisfied, manipulative little shit. Thanks to Jacob Hall for summing it up.

You win a– wait, is that Louie Anderson?!

But you know what I wasn’t? Rich. I wasn’t poor, either, or entitled or anything else. I was just… a kid. Ferris Bueller is about classism? I disagree. Unlike Harvard and white tiger cubs, I don’t think the rich have a monopoly on teenage assholes. A teenager thinking they’re smarter than the room is part of the package.

The voice that saves Ferris Bueller is Matthew Broderick, which may seem obvious but bears repeating. A lot of praise today falls at the feet of Alan Ruck as Cameron, and rightly so because he’s awesome. But Cameron is a strong character on the page, while the Ferris that appears in the shooting script is a lot closer to the unrepentant asshole he’s accused of being. (Think Tucker Max without the glib womanizing.) Without Broderick, Ferris is unlikable and his message is horrifically self-serving—he literally destroys Cameron’s life and then heads home for dinner—but Broderick and his gentle delivery not only softens the character’s tone, but seems to have prompted Hughes to soften the writing as well. Ferris’s blatant manipulation of Cameron in the script translates into honest companionship in the film. Ferris simply wants Cameron to join him in a perfect day, and that goes for us as well. Great films are often praised for their complexity. In Ferris Bueller, the magic is in its simplicity. The movie is clean, focused, and on message: “life is frikkin’ awesome.”

pictured: Better than Work

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and it’s done wonders for the Hughes films as his audience has grown up and grown wistful, but Ferris Bueller doesn’t need life-support from nostalgia to survive; it can thrive on its own breezy good nature. Most Hughes films remind us of how we felt At That Age, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is ageless. We love Ferris and root for him to succeed because he satisfies our own desire to break out of the system (how many of you grown-ups took a “mental health” day last year?) The film says that the world could be our theme park if we just bluff our way past the gatekeepers. We can be the Sausage King of Chicago if we want it bad enough. We can carpe the fucking diem. But mostly the film says that, while we may not be Ferris, becoming Cameron is no way to live. That’s Hughes’s lesson, funneled directly at us through the wisdom of a baby faced teen. And we learned it, I think. The fundamental meaning of life, summed up by a day off from it.

The John Hughes Project

1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

2. The Breakfast Club

3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

4. Sixteen Candles

5. She’s Having a Baby

6. Uncle Buck

7. Weird Science

8. Curly Sue

Next Week: The final wrap-up on the John Hughes Project, followed by some year-end lists! See ya then!

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  1. #1 by Brandes Stoddard on 01/17/2011 - 8:21 PM

    Man, I love this movie. It is one of a handful of movies for which, no matter what I am otherwise doing, if I stumble across it while channel-surfing, I am dropping what I was doing and watching to the end.

    You forgot to mention how hot Mia Sara is in this movie, though. This was a nontrivial portion of my enjoyment. =)

  2. #2 by Rae on 01/20/2011 - 1:37 PM

    I’m with Brandes when it comes to this movie and Breakfast Club… All things stop and wait.

    Sometimes I think it’s the teenage breakthroughs that the characters had in these films that really keeps me rooted in them.

    Especially Cameron’s moment with the painting. I think that about sums up me when I was young; revelations.

    And sometimes I just reveled :)

    Awesome ride, man! Look forward to the next countdown!

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