- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It took a brave, bold move on the part of writer/director John Hughes to have boyish hero Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) turn directly to the camera with self-assured braggadocio five minutes into “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” with a winsome grin as his parents, convinced his is laid up with a nonspecific though serious ailment, depart for work — and his day of hooky can now begin.

It was as much a gamble, but one of cocky conceit, as Hughes himself was expressing through his teenage avatar. With the opening curtain barely done swaying on its eaves, Hughes knew that he had his audience right where he wanted them.

“They bought it,” Ferris tells us, as sure as his maker that moviegoers are now on board for whatever impishness he might unleash for the next 98 minutes.

Directly addressing the audience has been a staple of theater since the ancient Greeks (in fact, one of my AP English teachers allowed us to watch it as an example of such device, or rather, we convinced him), but its use in then-modern 1980s cinema was both a throwback and ahead of its time. So confident in his own abilities to cheerily trick the world into anything he wishes, it might even be argued that Ferris sheds his creator’s strictures and perhaps even writes his story independent of Hughes’ pen: Pygmalion’s clay directing its artisan rather than the other way around.

Three decades since Ferris Bueller embarked on his epic day off in 1986, Hughes’ film is as pitch-perfect as it was then. While all movies are undoubtedly a reflection of the time in which they are produced, as with much else of his limited oeuvre as writer-director, Hughes’ single-day adventure of the satyr Ferris against the adult world and the ogre Edward R. Rooney remains as close to flawless to a cinematic confection as has ever been made.

The clothes may have aged, Ferris may have, but “Ferris” has not.

For the uninitiated — if any such exist — after successfully faking out the ‘rents that he’s ill, Ferris then sets about his plan to spring girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) from school, as well as to get his Munchausen-esque best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) out of his bed and into the streets of downtown Chicago for the promised day off.

(Few other directors were so singly identified with a city as Hughes was with Chicago, as much as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee with New York, John Waters and Barry Levinson with Baltimore, Ben Affleck and Boston or Richard Linklater with Austin.)

Ferris is one of the most likable liars in cinematic history. The key to his likeability is that, while, yes, he cheerily schemes and scams his way through life, there is a genuineness to his personality, to the way he treats those he encounters as fellow travelers through this ridiculous life rather than as beneath him — as if inviting those he encounters to wink at the self-imposed propriety of bourgeois living. (As in Hughes’ other films, his hero here is upper-middle-class, white, lives in the suburbs, and has the luxury of having rather few in the way of “real” problems.)

Nowhere is Ferris’ authenticity more apparent than in his friendship with Cameron. By even a conservative reckoning, Cameron is an intolerable bore and a colossal wet blanket, a self-loathing slug who holes up in his bed inside his parents’ Gehry-like glass mansion waiting for nothing less than death to whisk him off the sterile home life into which he was born.

That Ferris would choose someone like Cameron as his bestie is less a leap, I believe, than might otherwise at first be believed. In a society where everyone “knows” Ferris or is hoping to get something from him (“He’s getting me out of summer school!”), Cameron is the one person on earth who desires — or needs — absolutely nothing from him. In a world of takers and users for whom Ferris likely cares little — even though he will approach each and every with an affability worthy of Bill Clinton — his affection for Cameron is the most genuine of his relationships, even more so than what he feels for his girlfriend.

If there were ever any truth in advertising, the film would rightfully have been slugged “Cameron Frye’s Day Off.” Ferris, though he be the undisputed lead of the piece, is a classic example of the unvarying. Sure, he nearly gets busted by Rooney in Act 3, but the closing credits find him right back in bed, that same self-satisfied grin on his lips, at having gotten away with it all — and no doubt planning tomorrow’s day off.

Cameron is key to the film’s genius. Although Mr. Ruck was knocking on 30 at the time of filming, he effectively and effortlessly inhabited teenage angst and self-loathing as few ever have in movies (it is a shame his career, while lengthy, never panned out as brightly as has Mr. Broderick’s).

We would all like to be Ferrises, but most of us are Camerons — plagued by nagging self-doubt and resentment at the strictures of our rearing, with blankets pulled up to chin, staring at the ceiling, and blithely decreeing “I’m dying.” It is perhaps the ultimate existential ennui expressed in two words. Even at 17, Cameron can only look ahead, not with fear or angst, but with resignation that this life is finite, and that its end, to him, is far more palatable than just one more day in wealthy suburban stifling sameness.

It’s the kind of problem that only the privileged know. To wit, Ferris’ lone complaint about his rather comfortable living is that he “asked for a car, I got a computer.” Wah wah.

But let’s take class commentary out of the equation for now. Ferris must rouse his friend from his chambers. “I didn’t do this for me, I did it for you,” Ferris tells Cameron over the phone, a statement which we — and, I suspect, he himself — half-believe. Yes, Ferris essentially applies guilt to move Cameron, but such is necessary, both for the plot and for Cameron’s growth.

Oh, and he also needs Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari for his subterfuge of getting Sloane out of school to hold water, so his entreaty isn’t entirely selfless.

The other key character in the film is, of course, Edward R. Rooney, dean of students, the kind of ungainly title that must be said out loud — and indeed is, by actor Jeffrey Jones in his first line in the film — to be made to sound even remotely important. Never in my life, travels or networking have I ever, ever encountered a professional “dean of students,” an appellation I suspect Hughes invented as it is immeasurably more amusing than the far more insipid “principal.” (However, a quick trip to LinkedIn does find several examples of “dean of student affairs,” but only at the collegiate level. By chance, the District’s own American University happens to have a “Dean of Students Office.” Who knew?)

As masterfully brought to life by the great acting of Jones, Rooney is necessary to balance out the antics of Ferris. He’s the superego to Ferris’ unchained id. He knows, dammit, that Ferris is ditching, and he will catch him in the act if it’s the last thing he does — and he’ll do it while venting statements of rather grandiose self-importance.

When first seen in his sterile office in pale-blue suit and stuffy tie, flicking specks of dirt off his slate-clean desk while wiggling his thin blond mustache, Rooney is a classic, un-self-conscious buffoon. Sure, he’s the enemy, the antagonist, but we can’t help but like him.

The Roadrunner needs the Coyote, and Rooney will chase — and always miss — Ferris by a step, and fall off that cliff over and over and over again. It’s the repetition of his misery that makes it funny and compounds further our joy and cheers for Ferris and his crew to succeed.

Adults in Hughes’ work were frequently portrayed as disappointed, heartless drones resigned to their fates and to the inevitability that, as Tom Cruise’s cynical hit man (is there any other kind?) in “Collateral” wryly observed: “It never happened … and [now] you are old.” Just think of the cantankerous teacher in “The Breakfast Club” (Paul Gleason), charged with supervising Saturday detention. Reduced in middle years to spending eight hours on a weekend day laying the hammer down on unruly teens, Gleason externalizes the far side of the necrosis of youthful hope and vigor. He is what the Breakfast Club kids loathe, but also realize they may one day become.

“My God, are we going to be just like our parents?” the jock Andy (Emilio Estevez) asks.

Rooney is different, and far more than a stick figure heavy. The fine character actor William Sadler told me last year that playing villains is “delicious” and that they possess an intelligence and ability that, if channeled elsewhere, might do good in the world. I suspect that actors enjoy portraying antagonists because it allows for a discharging of a primordial urge to behave without consequence and hold power over others. “If you can’t be John McClane, be Col. Stuart,” Mr. Sadler told me of his stentorian villain in “Die Hard 2,” who holds Washington Dulles International Airport hostage for two hours and kills many civilians in the interim.

Rooney is even given a foil in the delightful Grace (Edie McClurg), his long-suffering secretary who smiles almost sexually every time Rooney unleashes yet another monologue torrent about how’s he’s finally, finally going to bust Ferris and “put one hell of a dent in his future.” Rooney’s patois is littered with such Faustian proclamations of his own mission statement, delivered in an argot that would be far more at home in a Marlowe play than a principal’s office:

“In the opinion of this educator, Ferris is not taking his academic growth seriously.”

“I did not achieve this position in life by letting some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

“Last thing I need at this point in my career is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.”

The last is met by the slightest of chuckles from Grace, and the brisk retort: “Well, makes you look like an ass is what he does, Ed.”

It is Shakespeare crashing headlong into David Mamet.

“Thank you, Grace, I think you’re wrong,” is Rooney’s irritated reply, so intent is he on continuing his jargon-laced diatribe of Sorkinian declaratives.

Rooney’s most epic of fails is one of the film’s best sequences, in which the dean believes he has caught his enemy in the act of truancy at a pizza arcade. Composer Ira Newborn, a frequent Hughes collaborator, underscores the sequence with a jazz queue, right down to a hammering brass chord when Rooney flips up the lenses on his sunglasses and then down again — to say nothing of the tuba “whaaa” when Rooney’s prey, spoken to, natch, in French (“Les jeux sont faits” or “the game is up”) turns to him to reveal not Ferris, but a woman.

A hagiography of all of the film’s gags, characters and shenanigans is neither necessary nor instructive, but at least a few bear mention.

As in his other films, Hughes populated his cast with minor character actors of titanic talent, each given an entrance worthy of a star. The most amazing of these is the slimy garage attendant (Richard Edson), who, in the same uninterrupted master shot, punches in on the clock, espies the “borrowed” Ferrari and does something with his face that, in less than five seconds, establishes that he absolutely, without question, will take that ride for a spin as soon as its occupants are out of sight.

The other great minor player is the maitre’d at the snooty French bistro. Seeing three clearly out-of-place teenagers at the host’s stand, comedian Jonathan Schmock enters frame, narrows his eyes in a suggestion of “this does not happen, not in MY damn restaurant,” and approaches Ferris, Cameron and Sloane to meet Ferris’ ruse that he is impersonating Abe Froman, the famous “sausage king of Chicago.”

MAITRE’D: I’m suggesting you leave before I have to get snooty.

FERRIS: Snooty?

MAITRE’D: Snotty.

FERRIS: Snotty?

Not one to accept defeat — never mind that there’s an Italian sandwich shop on ever corner in downtown Chicago that would suffice — Ferris, through yet another phone gag (the film has not less than three) weasels his way into lunch, thus forcing the maitre’d to eat crow by seating them and, we suspect, will have to do so again later when the real Abe Froman shows up.

In a film that is only 103 minutes long, Hughes even has time for an ingenious throwaway gag. In an early scene the supremely droll economics teacher (Ben Stein) takes attendance for the sole reason of establishing that both Ferris and Cameron are absent, repeatedly calling out Ferris’ surname in what has become one of pop culture’s enduring refrains for a question left unanswered: “Bueller? … Bueller? … Bueller? … Bueller?”

After thereafter introducing both Cameron and Rooney, Hughes then cuts back to the econ class, where no characters of any matter — not even Sloane—are present. And yet for 75 seconds Mr. Stein prattles on and on and on about trade, tariffs, Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics” and such other minutia of the ebb and flow of cash systems as to freeze his students’ faces into stupefied shock, horror and disgust in a series of reaction shots as the teacher answers his own questions before any of his student can, or even want to (“Anyone, anyone? Class? Anyone?”).

The scene neither propels nor detracts from the plot in any way at all, and the film would be more or less the same without it, but it is a masterpiece of comedy, with Hughes utilizing the reaction shot as has scarcely been done before or since. And it also established Mr. Stein — who, in addition to being an economist, is also a lawyer who once wrote speeches for Richard Nixon — as his own media caricature, upon which he has made a fortune. (He said in an interview this weekend he was paid only $300 for “Ferris.”)

Now of transformations and character growth. If the film missteps at all, it is that Ferris’ grouchy sister Jeanie (a pre-“Dirty Dancing” Jennifer Grey), also out to prove to her parents and the world that her brother is finking, undergoes such radical change by the film’s end after … making out with Charlie Sheen in a police station. I myself have never been a teenage female, but her going from stone-faced wench to laughing maniacally as she takes leave of the wiry-haired Mr. Sheen strikes me as a bit false.

After hating on Ferris for the entire running time prior, Jeanie then purposely gets a speeding ticket to allow her brother more time to get back into bed before the parents can catch him out and about when she could have given him up the instant she nearly runs him over with the station wagon.

But notice how Jeanie smiles sadistically while listening to Rooney reaming out Ferris on the back steps. The game is up for him at last. “Les jeux sont faits.” However, Jeanie rescues Ferris from the situation, I suspect, because Ferris may be a twit, but he’s her twit, and family comes first.

Oh, and since she has come to realize that it was Rooney who illegally entered the home, and the one she kicked in the face earlier, well, he deserves to have his ankles chewed up by the family pooch anyway.

Siblings will always spar, but against authority they are united.

And so on to the reason of the film’s greatness, and why it is one of the most important of Hughes’ short career as a director. (Hughes, who died in 2009, directed just nine films — only four of them after “Ferris” — but wrote dozes of others.) That would be Cameron and his war with the Ferrari, standing in for the father he loathes but is never seen.

After learning that the garage attendants have illicitly put a hundred extra miles on the Ferrari, Cameron essentially goes into a fugue state, becoming unresponsive, no doubt in terror at the whomping his pops will mete out upon reading the odometer. So wracked with fear is Cameron that he even goes for a mock-suicide attempt in the pool. Ferris derides him for “kidding,” but I believe sincerely that had Ferris not been there to save him, Cameron would have allowed himself to drown.

But drown he does not, and finally he realizes that all of his self-loathing is a terrible waste of time and energy. “It was the best day of my life,” he says while the Ferrari, up on pilings, rolls in reverse in the Frye garage in attempt to remove the miles from the odometer.

It doesn’t work, and Cameron finally, after 18 years of being bullied by his father, has had enough. Mr. Ruck nearly breaks down as he pounds his chest for constantly taking the abuse. His life begins now, he says, and promptly begins burying his shoes into the Ferrari’s hood and lights — and knocking the support struts dangerously close to toppling.

“I can’t hide this,” Cameron smiles of the damage. “My dad will come home and he’ll have to deal with me. … I’m just tired of being afraid.”

Cameron then leans on the hood, declaring, “I can’t wait to see the look on the bastard’s face,” and his weight is just enough to tip the vehicle free, and it runs backward through the garage window and plunges 100 feet to its doom.

“What’d I do?” Cameron, shocked fear on his face, asks Ferris and Sloane.

“You killed the car,” is Ferris’ matter-of-fact reply, realizing that this is perhaps the first time ever, maybe in his entire life, that Ferris is faced with a situation he cannot make go away no matter his charms.

Whatever Cameron’s life might have been is gone forever. So assured is he of this that he refuses to let Ferris, who volunteers to do so, take the fall. “I want it, I’m gonna take it, that’s it. … When Morris comes home, he and I will just have a little chat.”

We never see that chat, nor its aftermath, but after a life of trying to “save” Cameron, Cameron is now ready to save himself. And, in the film’s single largest irony — echoing the campaign to raise funds for the mystery malady — it is Cameron who in fact “saves Ferris.”

So what, in all the years since, likely happened to Ferris, Sloane and Cameron? Did Ferris and Sloane in fact get married? Possibly, however, I suspect Ferris’ internal drivers likely got him into trouble — which is hinted at when Ferris, racing to beat his parents home, stops to introduce himself to two bikini-clad gals sunning themselves. But whatever work he applied himself to, Ferris no doubt succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. Perhaps he even ran for president with Sloane, even after their potential divorce, cheering him on the sidelines with their now-adult children.

And Cameron, of course, grew up to become Neil Page, the hero of Hughes’ masterpiece, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Cameron the character served as the bridge between Hughes’ films about teenagers and his one film solely about adults. Steve Martin’s Neil Page is a buttoned-up type with no real problems when he is forced to travel together with the motormouthed, uncouth, blue-collar Del Griffith (John Candy, another Hughes regular). Neil’s neuroses are the same as Cameron’s, with a cynicism and detachment from his fellow man that only a soul like a Ferris or a Del can remedy.

Cameron, then, was Hughes’ greatest-ever creation, and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” gave him permission to leave behind teen angst to focus solely on adult disappointments and class clashes.

Like Cameron, “Ferris Bueller” finally allowed Hughes to grow up.

FerrisFest took place in Chicago this past weekend. Alan Ruck, Edie McClurg and Jonathan Schmock were among those on hand for the event.

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