There is a moment in every adolescent’s life when he or she comes to the startling realization that the previous generation is utterly fucked in the head. It’s an epiphany that impels the young adult to start looking outside the confines of the family unit in search of greater wisdom.
My moment of clarity occurred about 20 years ago or so, when I was in the car with my mother listening to our local hits-of-the-’60s radio station (which regularly touted itself as “your feel-good music station” and then play “House of the Rising Sun” or “Paint It Black”). The DJ announced “more hits for the Big Chill Generation!” I was stunned: did people of my parents’ ilk actually call themselves that? Were they really so unaware as to identify with Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 paean to whiny Yuppie self-absorption, when the title of the film was so plainly an allusion to the slow consumptive death of ’60s idealism? I looked over at my mom, bopping away to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and decided I didn’t want to know.
Kids of the ’80s like myself, disaffected and convinced of the sheer uselessness of our parents, had our own spokesman at the multiplex: John Hughes, the wunderkind writer and/or director of Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). Hughes, a former writer for National Lampoon, rode high on the mid-Reagan-era zeitgeist with funny movies about teenage tragedy, striking a chord with angst-ridden suburban white kids with no real problems. In Hughes’ painfully attractive characters, whose primary difficulties were rooted in a lack of attention from the people who raised them, we found gobs of validation. Call us the Breakfast Club Generation. We are all Molly Ringwald.
In the summer of 1986, however, Hughes kicked out a flick that turned his earlier films on their collective ear — Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the story of a charming teen wiseass, his girlfriend, and his dyspeptic best pal, as they play hooky and explore the wilds of downtown Chicago. Here parental cluelessness is a boon. The eponymous hero (Matthew Broderick) and Sloane (Mia Sara) have nary a trace of adolescent angst, and together they work to purge Cameron (Alan Ruck) of his inner demons through the power of joyous abandon. In other words, Hughes did a movie about getting over it, and it’s by far his best film.
One gorgeous spring morning, Ferris decides it’s too nice a day for school and sets out to fake an illness (with a crafty performance and an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption to get around the ‘rents), pull Cameron out of his usual hypochondriac sickbed, borrow Cameron’s dad’s vintage convertible, and spring Sloane from school. Once liberated, the kids head into the city, where they crash a four-star restaurant, take in a Cubs game, go to the top of the Sears Tower, and explore the Field Museum: this film is a love letter to Chicago. Meanwhile, back at school, news of Ferris’ life-threatening illness has reached the student body, sparking a fundraising campaign, complete with “Save Ferris” t-shirts. As the always good Edie McClurg chirps, “The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads: they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
Only two people are not fooled by Ferris’s ruse: Ferris’ sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey, before Dirty Dancing and her unfortunate nose job), who lives in a constant state of inchoate rage over Ferris’ ability to get away with murder, and Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the school principal, who views Ferris’ truancy as a personal challenge to his fiefdom and sets out on a disastrous day-long manhunt, a secondary arc that is often much funnier than the main story. Kristy Swanson and Charlie Sheen also appear briefly, along with the monotonic turn as an economics teacher that made Ben Stein, for better or worse, a star.
The film holds up after 20 years, primarily due to Broderick’s Broadway-honed comic timing and considerable charisma (according to the film’s casting directors, their other pick for Ferris was John Cusack, who would have underplayed the role). Good thing, too, because frankly, as written, Ferris is actually something of a jerk. Though ostensibly his day out is an attempt to get Cameron to shed some of his rampant neuroses, Ferris Bueller is ultimately all about Ferris Bueller, from his self-aggrandizing asides to the camera to the film’s show piece, where Ferris commandeers a parade float and lip-syncs “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout” to a captive, partying audience while Cameron and Sloane watch from the curb. These are great scenes, to be sure, but they undercut Cameron’s story, until after a while one wonders what Cameron’s doing there at all besides serving as Ferris’s stooge.
It’s also a tad bothersome that Hughes’ cast is so Caucasian. Granted, the kids are from an upper-middle-class suburb, but in downtown Chicago the only nonwhite faces to be seen belong to parking attendants, bathroom attendants, and a choreographed line of dancers during the parade scene, apparently there to give Ferris some street cred, and none of them have speaking parts. Hughes knows his audience, but a little color would have been nice, if only for the sake of verisimilitude.
Still, of Hughes’ teen comedies — he also dreamed up the National Lampoon’s Vacation and Home Alone franchises — Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is probably the most seamless and certainly the least painful. And the twentieth-anniversary DVD is also notable for including behind-the-scenes features that are actually enjoyable to watch. Rather than the usual tired interviews with cast and crew, the people involved with Ferris are lively and interesting talking about the film, so obviously both a labor of love and a career-maker for many of them.
Ruck in particular has many thanks for Hughes and Emilio Estevez, who turned down the role of Cameron. McClurg and Grey reminisce fondly about their preparation for their roles, unusually invested in a pair of secondary roles two decades old. Jones appears as well, waxing affectionately about playing Ed Rooney, after his recent brushes with the law concerning his tastes in photography. The only person missing is John Hughes.
I’ve shown my kids Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which, despite the PG-13 rating, is a very kid-friendly film. They enjoyed it, for which I’m glad, but I suspect that part of my motive was selfish, a need to revisit the days when I believed in my heart that my parents were as clueless as Ferris Bueller’s. I want to be ready for the rapidly approaching day when my kids have their epiphany.