25 October 2011
Even before Hughes's departure from the genre he did so much to define, it was clear enough that he'd run out of things to say in his The Breakfast Club/Pretty in Pink phase, for while his 1986 directorial effort Ferris Bueller's Day Off is yet another story of an upper-middle-class white kid from the fictional Chicago suburb Shermer set to a backdrop of in-the-moment tunes, it is really a hell of a long way away from anything Hughes had done before. In some ways, it feels like a summing-up moment: the comic broadness of Vacation; rifling between plots in a manner that, of all his work, most recalls Sixteen Candles; a climactic speech transplanted from The Breakfast Club. But looking for the DNA of other movies here is really not all that rewarding: Ferris Bueller is amazing precisely because of the quantum leap it represented in Hughes's career: the general mood is similar to the rest of his films, but the way that it's expressed is completely different. And just for a bonus, it was the first time in his directorial career that he demonstrated real ingenuity and creativity behind the camera.
The story is simple enough (that was one trait Hughes never got around to abandoning): a couple of months before graduation from high school, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) feigns a terrible illness to beg off of school, goads his legitimately sick friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) into joining him on a day of having adventures in Chicago, and proceeds to use his superhuman bullshitting skills to make sure that those adventures are of once-in-a-lifetime caliber. As this happens, the Shermer High School Dean of Students, Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is doing his best (and it's a very bad best) to find Ferris and string him up as an example to all seniors who might want to spend their final days in high school flagrantly breaking every possible rule just for the hell of it.
Deep in its heart, this is basically the same moral universe as any of its predecessors: parents are easily gulled and not very bright, authority figures at school are embittered totalitarians, and 18-year-olds are close enough to full-fledged adulthood that they can be trusted to have things figured out on their own. It's hardly a news flash that teen movies tend to favor themes like that; one of Hughes's great achievements throughout his career is telling this kind of story with such high-energy wit that we don't have much chance to poke holes at it (though the holes are there to be poked: Ed Rooney is a worthy case study in that, if you stop and think through his perceived villainy for a minute or two, it becomes apparent that he's doing exactly the job he is paid to do, the job that the parents of Shermer are relying on him to do with ruthless efficiency and a lack of romanticism about teenagers). That being said, what is presented with a certain aura of teensploitation in The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink is given a significantly more ironic gloss in Ferris Bueller, which unlike those previous movies does not in any way present itself as a realistic or normalised view at either how life is, or how it's meant to be.
The fact is, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is an unbridled fantasy, and unlike the director's previous film, Weird Science, it absolutely does not make a point of telling us in so many words that this is so. I do not suppose, however, that anybody has ever claimed with a straight face, as they might with The Breakfast Club, that it feels "true". In Ferris Bueller, the title character fakes his sickness so well that the entire school takes up a collection to pay for his medical bills, and by the end of the same day that he whips up this disease - about five or six hours later, tops - it's become a big enough movement that it's headline news in the afternoon edition of the paper. At the same time, he stages an impromptu Beatles sing-along during the Steuben Parade* and manages to get several hundreds of people to dance and sing with him. Throughout the film, he uses the telephone to flimflam and con his victims with farcical tricks that shouldn't work for anyone other than Bugs Bunny.
In short: Ferris Bueller is not a movie about high school life, it is about the daydreams a high school kid has about how much better life could be. There is hardly a five-minute stretch of the whole thing that is realistic in any genuinely meaningful sense. And this does not matter. I'd go so far as to claim that it's for this precise reason that it's the best of all the films John Hughes has directed: that, and a simply sublime bit of casting in the form of Matthew Broderick, whose wide-eyed enthusiasm irons out all of the less-reputable angles of Ferris Bueller's character. For, if we really stare coldly and objectively into the film's eyes, we're confronted with a rough truth: Ferris is an asshole. He lies, he bullies his sick friend, he is guilty of everything the "villainous" Ed Rooney blames him for. But it is simply not possible to dislike Broderick's characterisation, and when he peacefully stares right back at us (the use of direct address in this movie is chief among Hughes's stylistic innovations, a cinematic trick that creates much of the film's loose personality) and gives us the life lesson that it's best to slow down and appreciate things, it plays as an actual piece of worthwhile insight, and not at all the obnoxious harangue of a self-absorbed snot who only got to enjoy his day thanks to a significant dose of magical realism. Which is, basically, who he is and what happened.
So: Broderick is there to make Ferris much more likable than he "ought" to be (much as Jones, in a fantastic slow-burn performance, makes Ed Rooney seem far more unhinged and psychotic than his behavior supports), and that gives the film all the room it needs to explore this fantasy world of adolescent wish-fulfillment. More importantly, it lets Hughes indulge in a kind of broad, freewheeling comedy that isn't quite as sitcommy as Sixteen Candles or Weird Science - Ferris Bueller is in fact his first film as director that subscribes to the cartoon anarchism that, in his career up till that point, had only been seen in his Vacation screenplay. And Ferris himself, as a protagonist, has always struck me as being spiritually akin to the Marx brothers - a quick-talker with a genuinely antisocial bent who manages, by dint of being so obviously smarter than everyone else, to get away with it - rather than the real-ish kids dealing with real-ish problems elsewhere in Hughes's filmography. Cameron's subplot takes care of that, and I don't imagine that it's an accident that the moments in the film that work the least, or at least seem to be most disconnected from the film as a whole, are the ones that deal with his domestic issues. And I am not primarily thinking about the big speech at the end where he shares what he has learned (he, and not Ferris, actually gets a character arc; being essentially a fairy tale hero, Ferris ends unchanged in even the slightest detail from where he began), but about his clumsily interjected statement at one point that his parents hate each other; they probably do, but Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not the movie where he should have brought that up.
This is a perfectly easygoing film, a humanist light comedy with no stakes; it is Hughes's singularly nice movie, a love-letter to his characters and to the city of Chicago, which is depicted with rather more enthusiasm for its characteristic architecture and tourist spots than with any real geographic precision (but even so, if only for its Art Institute montage, this would still be one of the great shot-in-Chicago pictures). It is a movie almost completely made up of affection, and that is something in surprisingly short supply in Hughes's filmography: there is usually a pungent sense of social anguish in his screenplays, and when there is not, there is a clear sense that he's mocking some or all of his characters. None of that in Ferris Bueller, where even Ferris's annoying sister (Jennifer Grey, just one year prior to Dirty Dancing) is treated with a kindness that the obnoxious siblings of Sixteen Candles and Weird Science were not at all afforded. It's all very simple and unforced, and fantastically charming, funny, and appealing. It's proof, the best in the filmmaker's career, that a movie doesn't need to bend over backwards for Meaning to be absolutely great.