The Atlantic Monthly
June 9, 2011
Ferris Bueller's Day Off , which hit theaters 25 years ago this week and will soon be re-released on Blu-Ray and DVD, inspires a special kind of reverence in suburbia. "Today you'd be hard-pressed to find an American high-school yearbook that doesn't quote somewhere in its pages Ferris Bueller's view on existence," author Susannah Gora writes in her book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, And Their Impact on a Generation . Before going with a bromidic Bob Dylan lyric, I almost made my own senior quote, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." In hindsight, it seems about as profound as a fortune cookie. I guess being 17 is a good excuse for banality.
Adults, on the other hand, should know better. Yet they too remain fixated on Ferris, a role that earned Matthew Broderick a Golden Globe nomination . The line, "Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?", delivered by Ben Stein's monotonic economics teacher, is American educators' go-to, passive-aggressive rallying cry. References can also be found outside the classroom. This February, Baseball Prospectus writer Larry Granillo dedicated two blog posts to determining the precise Cubs game Ferris and his pals attended while playing hooky. An episode of the FOX medical drama House that aired in March centered on a homeless guy who called himself Ferris Bueller. "I think," Juno director Jason Reitman says in Don't You Forget About Me , a 2009 documentary about the late Hughes, "Ferris Bueller 's a perfect movie."
A quarter century after its release, the explanation for why Ferris Bueller's Day Off remains a pop-culture touchstone is simple. As a friend put it, "Every kid has dreamed of pulling off what Ferris Bueller did." This was certainly true in my case. I grew up in a place not unlike Ferris's tony North Shore suburb. Naturally, I dreamed about cutting class and zipping around Chicago in a 1961 Ferrari 250GT California. I'm just not sure every kid shared, or even had the means to share, my fantasy. This is the myth of Ferris Bueller . It's portrayed as a universal story, when it's really not.
Hughes's other movies may not channel Dickens, but they're at least populated with teenagers who've had it rougher than Ferris. In Weird Science , Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) are bullied dorks who are clueless about women. In Pretty in Pink , Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) is too poor to afford a nice prom dress. In The Breakfast Club , John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the rebellious product of a broken home. Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, dates Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara), the hottest girl in school, and says stuff like, "-ism's, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself."
The line might resonate more if the movie weren't dripping with classism. Ferris is wealthy, white, and still smarting from his recent birthday, when the doting parents he repeatedly and proudly deceives buy him a computer instead of a car. ("What kind of movie hero consciously presents himself as infantile and duplicitous?" Paris Review writer Caleb Crain asks in his recent essay " Totaling the Ferrari: Ferris Bueller Revisited. ") Meddling Dean Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) spends the entire movie trying to bust Ferris, but never succeeds. Not that you expect him to. Nothing challenges Ferris. Unlike most teens, his life is free of adversity.
Yet all his classmates, including the sportos, the motorheads, sluts, bloods, wastoids, and so on, love him. Most critics felt the same way. Ferris Bueller has an 83 percent "Certified Fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes . Hell, the movie made columnist George F. Will's bow tie spin like a pinwheel . He called it, "the moviest movie, the one most true to the spirit of movies, the spirit of effortless escapism." What, exactly, Ferris is escaping from, I'm not sure. (His two-parent household, maybe.)
Somehow, though, we think Ferris is a empathetic character. "I related so much to that movie," gushes one teenager in Don't You Forget About M e , "because Ferris was in with like, all the crowds." I'm not sure I buy that. A lot of teenagers probably had trouble seeing themselves in Ferris. I don't think he had any non-white friends. I don't think he even knew any non-white kids. The only minorities I remember spotting while recently rewatching the movie were black dancers in the parade scene, the black school nurse, and two guys Crain mentions in his essay. "While Ferris, Cameron, and Ferris's girlfriend aren't looking, the Ferrari is driven off for a joyride by the somewhat Hispanic-looking garage attendant and his black coworker," Crain writes, "ethnicity here serving as a marker of socioeconomic class, as so often is in movies."
Admittedly, I used to think Ferris was a righteous dude. But I couldn't relate to him. After all, he wasn't bound by the laws of reality. My friend recently joked that in the real world, Sloane would've gotten pregnant, and Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), Ferris's neurotic best friend, would've chopped his meds into powder and divided it up three ways. But, the argument goes, none of that matters. Ferris isn't a real person, he's a symbol. "Broderick knew, even then, that Ferris represented much more than a typical teen, particularly to Hughes," Gora writes in her book. "'To John,' Broderick said while making the film, 'Ferris Bueller is more than a person―he's an attitude, and a way of life, and a leader of men.'"
There is, I think, some beauty in that theory. Cutting loose, exploring, challenging authority when necessary--those are things teenagers should do. There are several Ferris Bueller moments I still love. The Art Institute of Chicago scene is one. The Abe Froman bit is another. But beyond the occasionally funny antics, Ferris's way of life leaves me feeling empty. There's just not much substance to it. Ferris hides behind his shtick, and he lies. "It is hard to imagine a ranker example of a son trapped in a false, compliant self by his shyness of conflict," Cain writes. "The viewer is distracted from this character flaw by the frequent confessions that Ferris shares across the fourth wall; he always seems to be telling the truth to us , even if he isn't telling it to anyone else in the movie." A leader of men would actually fess up to his friends and family. Ferris never does.
A leader of men also wouldn't strong-arm his best friend. Cameron, after all, is essentially forced to join his buddy's day trip. Chicago Sun-Times Richard Roeper, a Ferrisophile to his core, calls the movie "something of a suicide prevention film." He believes Ferris is doing Cameron a favor. "Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it," Roeper wrote in 2009 . If the plan succeeded, and Cameron truly woke up and embraced life, he would've realized he didn't need Ferris. Instead, he martyrs himself, deciding to take the rap for wrecking his absent father's Ferrari, while Ferris gets off, scot free.
In the end, Ferris's parents still think their son, who seemingly learns no lessons and continues to get away with everything, is a fragile, sickly darling. Even his acerbic sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who he barely acknowledges and who seemingly has every right to resent him, eventually gives in to her brother's charm. It's aggravating. It's ridiculous. "Why should he get to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants?" Jeanie rightfully asks before the script forces her to cave. "Why should everything work out for him? What makes him so goddamn special? Screw him."