SPOILER ALERT: I am probably the last person who hasn't seen this movie. Unless I'm not. If you haven't, don't feel bad. But do know that this review will discuss major plot points. If you don't know much about the film and would like to watch it with a blank slate, I'd encourage you to watch it before reading this review.
There are some movies that become part of our culture. They are remembered for years for a specific turn of phrase or a scene of significance. I've always known Ferris Bueller's Day Off to be such a film, but I had never actually seen it. I had only heard countless people mimic Ben Stein's famous roll call query. Now after having seen the film, I feel part of the club.
As a young man in his mid-20's, I can clearly remember when I was actually part of the club depicted in this movie - teenagers preparing for life after high school. A time when ditching school and figuring out what to do with a day of leisure and how to avoid getting caught were the biggest problems you faced.
And yet, as this movie progresses, we see that those are not truly the biggest problems facing these characters. Fear of the future, unreciprocated parental love and questions about life find their way into these teenagers' leisure-filled lives. And those were my favorite moments of this film (save one scene that takes place at my beloved Wrigley Field). I enjoyed seeing these teenagers wrestle with their precarious stage of life, because I vividly remember that wrestling myself.
And yet, this movie paints a pretty bleak picture of where they can expect to end up.
All the adults in Ferris Bueller's Day Off are pictured as either bumbling fools, materialistic tyrants, or good-hearted people caught up in jobs that keep them from heeding our main character's philosophy on life - to stop and take it all in. I applaud that philosophy! I truly do. But I wonder if the deeper message of this movie is that adulthood is a long, gradual slope downward. That I find to be much more problematic.
We begin the movie in a familiar place - suburban America. Parents are preparing the family for the day ahead. For the two kids, that means school.
One of those kids is our dashing hero - Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick). He has decided that he will push his luck and go for his ninth sick day of the semester. We smile as he breaks the fourth wall and tells us how he fakes clammy hands and eludes a trip to the doctor - an even worse fate than school. His sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) cannot believe that her parents have fallen for the ruse. She goes to school with bitterness in her heart, a storyline that any sibling can understand.
We then see the famous scene unfolding back at the school. It is the beginning of the day, and the teacher (Ben Stein) is commencing with the roll call. He gets through the A's with all the students present. Then...
We laugh, and it is a memorable scene. But, once again, the adult is played as the impotent bystander in Ferris' elaborate ruse. I tried to stop myself from focusing too much on this storyline as the movie continued, but I almost couldn't help myself. As someone in the early stages of adulthood, I sure hope it isn't such a drag.
At the same time, I firmly believe that we shouldn't try to beat meaning out of a work of art. This is a fun movie. As adolescent escapism, it works better than most. We watch as Bueller's shenanigans continue and the ruse gets ever closer to being revealed. Throughout the film, he is chased by the school's dean, Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones). He is a man who is bitter about Bueller's lack of respect, and he wants the teenager to pay.
I wonder how Mr. Rooney got his job. He treats his co-workers horribly, and he acts foolishly at every turn of this film. In a movie, sure, we play along as his character is used purely to make us laugh. And I am not saying that all adults are geniuses who never make mistakes. I've spent enought time around myself to know that's not true. But is a school dean really going to go to such lengths to track down a student he believes to be skipping school? In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Rooney was the one skipping school back in his day.
But again, that may not be the best eye with which to watch this movie. You can get yourself down a rabbit hole. Would parents really not recognize their children through the window of a taxi or as they are running right next to their car? Would they really fall for a mannequin in a bed? How does a teenager even have access to a mannequin? Yes, quickly the questions become ludicrous. Instead, let's not question and just watch.
Ferris convinces his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), to join him on his day of fun. Cameron, we find out, truly is home sick from school. At first he rebuffs Ferris' repeated attempts to get him to come over. But, inevitably, he gives in. Thus our dream teenage day is set - a day home from school with your best friend. For a school stud like Ferris, though, that dream must include a girl. His girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), is still in school, however. So, they must devise a way to get her out.
They trick Mr. Rooney into thinking that Sloane's grandmother has died. Here, once again, I simply cannot fathom that someone in Mr. Rooney's situation would act this way. Sure, adults can get duped, too. Again, I'm not trying to go overboard in the opposite direction and put adulthood up on a magical pedastal. I just don't think someone would automatically assume the person on the other end of the line was a lying teenager and insult them with so much vigor when the alternative is that you are lambasting a parent with particularly colorful language. But, we find out that we both have it wrong. It isn't Ferris on the other end, and it isn't Sloane's father. It's Cameron, and the playful ruse continues.
To impersonate Sloane's wealthy father, the boys need a car that fits the crime. Thankfully, Cameron's dad just happens to have a one-of-a-kind Ferrari in the garage. Here, we begin to see the movie's attempt at poignancy.
Cameron's father loves this car more than he loves his son. It is his pride and joy. Cameron, full of insecurity and timidity, wants to protect it in the hopes that his father won't be upset. But Ferris needs to continue his day of leisure at all costs. We watch in horror as Ferris proceeds to take the car. Cameron feebly calls for Ferris to stop, but he doesn't listen. We wonder why a friend would do something like that. And yet, didn't we all have a friend or two like that in high school? Always looking to push the limits for a good time. Later, we'll find out that Ferris has more than just a good time on his mind.
In the meantime, they certainly have a good time. Their day off school consists of a parade, a trip to The Art Institute, and my personal idea of a dream scenario - a day under the sun at Wrigley Field watching the Chicago Cubs play while your name flashes up on the famous red marquee. The movie's director, John Hughes, has said that he wanted to pay homage to his home city. That may be the best way to watch this film. As a love song to Chicago, it hits many of the right (albeit touristy) notes.
But, at some point, they have to come home. They finally do, and we come to a pivotal scene back in Cameron's dad's garage. They've been trying to get the car's mileage back to its original number by putting the car in reverse for a while. We laugh again as they inevitably find the error in their logic. Now, Cameron realizes that his dad will find out that they've taken the car for a drive in the sun on the streets of Chicago. We expect him to cower in fear. Instead, the point of Ferris' plot begins to unravel.
Ferris sees that his friend is scared. Cameron is worried about college and what to do with his life. He is haunted by a father who doesn't love him, or anyone else for that matter. All his father loves is this car. Cameron unleashes his pent-up anger, and we get, in my opinion, the best shot of this film. Cameron hits the car one last time, sending it off the jack and crashing through a large glass window. It's an image of rebellion, yes, but also a demand. Love me for who I am.
But who is Cameron? It seems he doesn't know. He can't even tell us what he likes to do. That's okay. Not understanding who you are seems to be a major aspect of adolescence and early adulthood. At least it was for me. You don't have to have everything figured out when you're 18, even if society tells us that we need to pick a college and a major and that these choices will drastically impact the rest of our life.
And so, the movie wants us to applaud Ferris for bringing Cameron out of his shell. We don't see what happens when Cameron's father comes home, and I shudder to consider it. His prized possesion is now a crumpled heap on the hillside. I hope he snapped out of his materialistic malaise to see his son for what he truly seems to be - a fine young man. He's just trying to figure life out like the rest of us. But we aren't shown what happens to Cameron, Ferris, or anyone else. I'm not sure I want to applaud anyone at the end of this movie. Ferris is an extremely likeable character who truly has a heart for his friend. But that doesn't change the existence of the crumpled car or the looming presence of life after high school.
This movie doesn't want us to consider those things. Does it make me a stick-in-the-mud if they're the only things I can consider after watching it? No, I don't think it does. Because, with the presence of Cameron's monologue, it's clear that this film wants us to do some considering. If it just wanted to be fun escapism, we wouldn't find out about Cameron's feelings towards his father. At so many points in this movie, I found myself wanting to simply watch and have fun. But it kept pushing me to do more. I think the movie still works as escapism. But as it reaches for deeper meaning, it begins to betray itself.
It makes sense that these characters worry about adulthood. All the adults in their lives give them no reason for hope. And that's where my love for this movie begins to wane. There's nothing wrong with depicting the innocence of adolescence. If I had seen this movie when I was a teenager, maybe I would remember it for that. But seeing it for the first time as an adult makes me view it as a poor representation of reality. Sometimes, as with the Picasso paintings that Ferris and his friends see at The Art Institute, poor representations of reality can be beautiful and meaningful. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not a Picasso, and if it didn't want to be graded on that scale, it shouldn't have tried so hard to force our hand.
Note on content: The movie contains some language and shows a paint drawing of a nude female on Ferris' computer while he is on the phone with Cameron. There is some minor sexual dialogue at other points in the film, but it is certainly tame compared to more modern films.