Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount, 1986)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, with Charles having one of his unusual evenings off so we could watch a movie together, I dug through the DVD collection and came up with the 1986 teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, written and directed by John Hughes and starring Matthew Broderick as high-school senior Ferris Bueller, who one bright sunny morning in his home town, Chicago, in April decides he’s going to tell his parents Tom (Lyman Ward) and Katie (Cindy Pickett) that he’s sick so he can sneak out of the house and take a “day off” from high school, and particularly from the all-seeing eyes of Dean Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones, who thinks he’s Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry but comes off more like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles). It seems that the policy in Chicago, at least at Shermer High School (one expects Hughes got the name of the establishment from the similar dean character in National Lampoon’s Animal House), is that if you have 10 unexcused absences from school, the administration can hold you back from graduating and force you to take the senior year over again, this time “under my personal supervision,” as Dean Rooney sententiously warns Bueller in one scene. I’d never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before and Charles had seen it in a theatre when it was new, but not since. 

In fact I’d pretty much overlooked the entire John Hughes oeuvre when it came out, though in 1994 I bought a used copy of the Pretty in Pink soundtrack LP and quite enjoyed it even though I thought there was only one truly great song on it, Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring On the Dancing Horses.” (I played it again earlier this morning, courtesy of a download from iTunes, and liked a lot more of it, including the “Pretty in Pink” song itself by the Psychedelic Furs — a favorite of Nick and Katie, the lead characters in Francis Gideon’s novel Hopeless Romantic, about a Gay man and the Transwoman he falls in love with; it was reading Gideon’s novel and noting the characters’ admiration for the John Hughes oeuvre and teen romantic comedies in general that led me to want to re-examine it and watch this movie.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off strikes me, 31 years later, as a truly weird movie, ahead of its time in at least one annoying detail: there’s no one in it you actually like. Ferris Bueller himself is a sort of Pied Piper character able to trick or fool just about anyone into doing whatever he wants, and though Matthew Broderick plays him with at least a superficial charm (and is clearly better than any one of the other discussed actors — Rob Lowe, John Cusack, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise — really? — Robert Downey, Jr. and Michael J. Fox — would have been), the character himself quickly gets insufferable and his ability to talk anyone into almost anything is pretty wearing. Ferris takes his titular “day off” in the company of his sort-of girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara, who’s superficially charming and right for the role but one can see why this was not a jumping point for major stardom for her) and his sort-of buddy Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), who to me was the most interesting character in the film, a sort of reluctant Sancho Panza to Ferris’s Don Quixote and the one member of the dramatis personae whom John Hughes actually gave some dry wit instead of the rather dorky jokes that supplied most of this film’s comic content.

Ferris wants Cameron to come along with him on his “day off” because Ferris, though he has a driver’s license (or at least is able to drive, which is not necessarily the same thing, especially in a teen movie!), doesn’t have a car. He continually bitches about how his parents gave his sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey, who though she plays his sister here actually became Matthew Broderick’s lover for a while) a car but just gave him a computer — though he uses the computer to hack into the Shermer High database and lower his number of recorded absences from the risky nine to a more tolerable two. (An “Trivia” poster noted that Broderick had previously played a hacker in WarGames, but what this scene suggested to me was that they should have made a sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which he becomes an Internet gazillionaire running a Facebook-like company and running it like one gigantic frat party — indeed, one can readily imagine Ferris Bueller growing up to be Mark Zuckerberg, dropping out of a college IT program and starting an Internet giant.) What’s most fascinating about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that the things Ferris, Sloane and Cameron do on their day off are quite prosaic and thoroughly wholesome — a Chicago Cubs baseball game (in Hughes’ original script the team they went to see was Hughes’ personal favorites, the White Sox, but he had to change it because during the time he was filming all the White Sox home games were at night, while the Cubs remain the one and only team in Major League Baseball who have never installed lights in their stadium and therefore don’t play home games at night), a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago (where Cameron has a life-changing experience staring at Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical, Sunday in the Park with George) and an unplanned involvement with the annual Von Steuben Day parade in Chicago. (A number of posters noted that the film is supposed to take place in April — Ferris and Cameron both mention they have only two months of high school left before they graduate — but the Steuben Day parade, which honors a German officer who came over to fight for the U.S. in the American Revolution and became a key assistant to George Washington in whipping the Continental Army into a disciplined fighting force, takes place in September, when the film was shot, not when it supposedly takes place.) 

At the Steuben Day parade Ferris takes over one of the floats and lip-synchs to Wayne Newton’s original recording of “Danke Schön” — a song I remember from my childhood because I couldn’t make sense of it (I asked my mom, “What are ‘donkey chains’ and why would someone write a song about them?”) and the Beatles’ famous cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.” (I found myself wondering how on earth John Hughes got what’s left of the Beatles’ organization to license him that record when virtually none of the Beatles’ records are ever licensed for movies — indeed, it wasn’t until the end credits that I was convinced it actually was the Beatles and not a Beatles tribute band’s re-recording of the song. There’s nothing on about how Hughes got to use the record but there is a comment that Paul McCartney didn’t like how the marching-band horns were heard over the Beatles’ record in the film. Ironically, the Isley Brothers’ original version had horn parts, but they were quite different from the ones heard here.) There’s an odd, quirky connection between “Danke Schön” and the Beatles that deserves note: “Danke Schön” was co-written by German bandleader and record producer Bert Kaempfert, who also co-wrote Frank Sinatra’s hit “Strangers in the Night” and produced the Beatles’ first commercial recordings (in Hamburg, in 1961, when they were still a five-piece: John, Paul, George, Stu Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums). Unlike real teenagers going through these absurd lengths to ditch school, they don’t drink alcohol, do drugs or go anywhere sleazy; John Hughes’ original script included a scene in which Ferris, Sloane and Cameron went to a strip club, but the film was running over schedule and Paramount pulled the plug on the shoot before Hughes could film it (and doubtless they were also worried about losing their PG-13 rating and risking the film getting slapped with an R, which would have prevented much of its target teen audience from seeing it). As au courant as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was trying to be, there’s a certain decorousness about it as well as some gags that seem to belong more to the era of silent comedy than the 1980’s, notably the scene in which Cameron starts kicking his dad’s beloved Ferrari GT 120 out of jealousy that his dad loves the car more than he loves Cameron — only, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually knocks the car through the picture window of the room where it’s being kept (a car being kept inside a room with a picture window? I’m not making this up, you know) and it flies out of the room and off into a ravine, totaling it. (Paramount received nasty letters from automobile collectors protesting that they’d destroyed one of the only 100 Ferrari GT 120’s ever made, which they hadn’t; since renting an actual Ferrari would have blown their budget, they built a replica with a fiberglass body over an MG chassis.) 

Indeed, one could readily imagine a 1920’s version of this movie with Harold Lloyd as Ferris (he wouldn’t have been that much less believable as a high-school student than Matthew Broderick in the 1980’s!) and Al St. John as Cameron, while there’s something Keatonesque about the elaborate devices Ferris uses to make it seem as if he’s home sick, including a tape recording that plays when the Bueller doorbell is rung and a synthesizer (though some contributors noted that in 1986 his synthesizer would have cost $80,000, far more than the car he says he can’t afford) that makes various coughing, belching and gurgling noises on cue and the elaborate dummy, held in place with pulleys that move it whenever the door to his bedroom is open, that inhabits his bed when he’s out. The gags in which Dean Rooney crashes the Bueller home and then is confronted by their dog also are straight out of the 1920’s, and there are other interesting bits, including Jeannie getting herself arrested after the cops mistake her for an intruder in her own house (the real intruder she called the cops on is Dean Rooney), and while waiting in jail for her mom to bail her out she meets and falls in lust with an anonymous “bad” teenage boy, played by the young Charlie Sheen, who frankly I thought was the sexiest guy in the movie. (Given Charlie Sheen’s later history, his one-word explanation for what he is doing in jail — “Drugs” — is almost unbearably ironic.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an agreeable light entertainment that could have been much more — frankly, I was hoping Hughes would have Sloane reject Ferris and embrace Cameron as her true love at the end, which would have been just about as clichéd as the ending we actually got but would at least have given Ferris a bit of a well-deserved comeuppance — and I probably would have liked this movie better and identified with it more if I’d been more of a teen rebel myself. 

I never wanted to cut school, partly because school (academic subjects, anyway) was one of the few things I was good at; during the scene in which the economics professor (Ben Stein) issues his famous call of “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller” before realizing he’s absent, then delivers a lecture about the Smoot-Hawley tariff and periodically breaks his talk in hopes that the students will supply the next piece of information and thereby prove they’re actually learning something (instead they sit, stonily silent), I’d have been interrupting the teacher, supplying all the right answers and getting myself righteously hated by my classmates for showing off. None of the characters in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are that likable (though I could see myself hanging out with Cameron or maybe even being him): Ferris himself is insufferable, the sister O.K. until Charlie Sheen turns her “bad” at the end, Sloane the typical empty-headed heroine of these sorts of films, Dean Rooney a caricatured villain (if he’d been made a sincere but clueless educator who wants the kids to stay in school because he really thinks it would be better for them, this would have been a funnier movie than it is), and the parents of our principals all so wrapped up in their roles in the capitalist world they barely acknowledge their kids’ existences. One of the most interesting characters is Dean Rooney’s secretary, Grace (Edie McClurg, who wanted to wear her hair in a 1960’s style and ended up doing it herself because the women’s hairdresser assigned to the film didn’t know how to set hair that way), who seems to reflect Nora Ephron’s comment about Rose Mary Woods that she was like many long-term secretaries in Washington, D.C. who were in love with their bosses, but in a strictly platonic way; she manages to convey real love and respect for Dean Rooney as well as exasperation with him over his screw-ups. With more complexity in the writing and particularly the characterizations of the adults, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could have been a marvelous satire of capitalism and teen angst; as it is, it’s an agreeable entertainment but one I’d hardly assign “classic” status even though it’s held up well enough that Paramount is still able to sell DVD’s of it three decades later.