Saturday, June 11, 2011



By Rhett Bartlett
An appreciation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off must point out the irony that one of the greatest comedies in the 1980s was also the film that ended the long line of successful “teenage angst” movies.

Throughout the decade, films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink spoke to its generation about love, loss, and rebellion. But when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off hit the screens in 1986, it was an encapsulation of all three, set against the backdrop of the hatred of school, one of the few shared experiences most teenagers lived through. 

And so since 1986 there has not been a single film that has come close to capturing the story of childhood friends rebelling against an establishment and their parents.

The success of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can be pinpointed to several layers. On the surface, it is a very simple film. No special effects, explosions, or camera tricks — just a strong screenplay by John Hughes himself that brings the supporting cast into the spotlight.

Consider the minor but important role of Edie McClurg as Grace (secretary to Ed Rooney, Dean of Students), who only has two scenes but comes across as conniving, simple, and old-school. A suitable sidekick for Rooney, but a woman who has a revenge streak herself.

Then there’s the attendant at the garage where Ferris valets the expensive car that isn’t his. This brief but equally important scene in the screenplay shows that it’s not just Ferris who believes he is above the establishment — even the valet can break the laws (and in slow motion).

Ben Stein’s quick scene as the monotonic Economics teacher perfectly expresses the feelings that teenagers have towards their teachers. His lecture on “Voodoo Economics” and the repetitive “Bueller” roll call remain some of the best delivered lines from the 1980s.

And then there are the two unsuspecting parents. The determined-by-work father (Lyman Ward), who on several occasions almost figures out Ferris’s plot, but instantly dismisses it on the assumption that his son is too kind and committed to wag school, and the mother (Cindy Pickett), so concerned about her son’s health that it nearly leads her to the revelation that he’s taking the day off.

But the character of Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the suspicious, stubborn, determined dean on the case of Ferris Bueller, is what raises this film above others from that decade. Perfectly cast and perfectly acted, we almost forget that Rooney is the only character in the movie that is right. His suspicions of Ferris’s fake sick day are actually correct, but the joy in the screenplay comes from us hoping that he never finds out. There is nothing better than knowing you can continually upstage your dean.

I would be remiss not to mention the performance of Matthew Broderick. Ferris Bueller was his sixth acting performance, and one that he is still remembered for the most. At an Oscar tribute to the film’s late director John Hughes, Broderick admitted that not a day goes by where someone doesn’t go up to him and say, “Hey, Ferris.” Matthew encapsulates the cheekiness of the ’80s generation and the carefreeness that teenagers had before computers, the internet and social media. He even speaks directly to the camera: “I asked for a car, I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?” Ferris doesn’t want to be stuck behind a computer or shackled to a school desk, he is longing for freedom so he can actually experience life as a teenager.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off couldn’t be remade for this generation. Social media devices within the plot would ruin the carefree spirit of the film. Ferris’s best moments are those that involve direct contact with other people — the baseball discussion with Cameron (Alan Ruck) during a game, the visit to the art gallery, his girlfriend greeting him in front of his school, those songs on the float. All have a realism attached; each of these messages is delivered face-to-face.

Yet the smartest moments in the film are when Ferris talks directly to the camera. Near the film’s beginning he outlines the ways you can pretend you’re sick to get out of going to school. There are even bullet points on the screen to articulate his point, and by the end of the scene, the teenage audience is on the side of Ferris without even knowing yet what he plans to do or who his antagonists are.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a rare intersection in film history where the right script and the right casting meet to deliver a nostalgic snapshot of every teenager’s unfulfilled dream.


Rhett Bartlett blogs at Dial M for Movies and can be reached on Twitter at @dialmformovies. He also can be heard on ABC Radio 774am Drive Show in Melbourne, Australia, every Monday night from 5:30 p.m. local time.

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I would have to disagree that it ended the successful teen angst comedies in the '80s because two of the best were yet to come -- Heathers (admittedly a satire, but teen angst bullshit with a body count) and Say Anything, both in 1989.
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