Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot twists.
Ferris Bueller decides to skip school and take his girlfriend and his best friend for a day out in Chicago…
* Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is a teenager whose biggest gripe in life is that, when he asked for a car, his parents bought him a computer. He’s clever, handsome, charming and has both unshakeable confidence and *preternatural* good luck. Knowing that his time at high school is drawing to a close, he decides to play truant one final time and have a day out with his pals. So he tricks his parents into thinking he’s ill, then calls his friend Cameron – who is actually unwell – and guilt-trips him into coming over. He then phones the school and pretends that his girlfriend’s grandma has died, therefore getting Sloane out of class for the day. After borrowing Cameron’s father’s car, Ferris and Cameron collect Sloane and the trio drive the 15 miles or so into Chicago. Ferris has a hectic day planned, and in fact their itinerary would probably be impossible to achieve in the seven or so hours the story gives them. Nevertheless, the characters visit Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, and look down from 1,353 feet. They watch the goings-on at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. They blag their way into a posh restaurant called Chez Quis. They see part of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where Ferris catches a foul ball. They visit the Art Institute of Chicago. And Ferris gatecrashes the annual Von Steuben Day Parade: he boards a float of Germanic women and mimes along to two songs. The latter gets thousands of people dancing, and brings the day to a rousing climax. After dropping Cameron and Sloane off, Ferris has to race home before his parents. He runs through gardens and other people’s houses, and is safely in bed when his mum and dad walk into his room… Throughout the movie, Ferris directly addresses the camera. Matthew Broderick had been talking to the audience in a Neil Simon play on Broadway immediately before filming, so was comfortable with the conceit. Hughes once said that, short of a 15-year-old James Stewart, Broderick was the only actor who could pull off Ferris’s charisma. (Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Michael J Fox and the nearly man of John Hughes teen comedies, John Cusack, were also considered.)
* Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey) is Ferris’s sister. She knows his illness is faked, and becomes increasingly irritated with the fact he can get away with anything. Later, because everyone believes Ferris’s lie, a spontaneous ‘Save Ferris’ campaign strikes up at school and pushes Jeanie over the edge. In a jealous rage, she resolves to catch her brother out. The decision comes in a rather shaky tracking shot – the only time in the film that the camerawork is anything less than exemplary. She heads home and stumbles across a prowler, so knocks him out and calls the cops (who ask after Ferris’s wellbeing). The police eventually arrive, but arrest Jeanie for wasting their time. At the police station, she encounters a drug-addled teenager, who she initially hates. However, his plain talking makes her realise that her obsession with Ferris is unhealthy. So she later covers for Ferris when he’s finally caught skipping school by their headmaster.
* Simone Adamley (Kristy Swanson) is the girl in Ferris’s class who tells the teacher why he’s absent – “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night…” Swanson was actually cast as another student: the one who speaks to Ferris on a payphone. But when the opportunity arose to shoot that scene quickly on location, another actress was used, so Swanson was given this tongue-twisting cameo. (She’d been in Pretty in Pink earlier that year.)
* Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) is Ferris’s best friend, but has a lot of issues. As Ferris says, “Cameron is so tight, if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” When the film begins, Cameron is ill in bed. But then Ferris calls and convinces him to come round. (From this point on, aside from the very occasional sniff, he shows no sign at all of being under the weather!) Once at Ferris’s house, he helps in the ruse to get Sloane out of school by putting on a gruff voice, phoning the principle and pretending to be her father. Cameron’s father, meanwhile, owns a rare, gleaming, red, 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. (Value in 1986: $350,000. One sold for $16.8m in 2015.) Despite Cameron’s nervous reticence, Ferris borrows it for the day – he promises to drive home backwards to hide any additional miles on the clock. When at the art gallery, Cameron stares at Georges Seurat’s pointillism masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884, and is affected by a child in the image. The closer he looks, the less he sees. When he and Sloane later have a heart-to-heart about their futures, it’s clear he’s at a crossroads: “What are you interested in?” she asks. “Nothing,” he says, with a knowing smile. “Me neither,” she laughs. Later, as the gang drive home, Cameron learns that the Ferrari’s speedometer has increased from “126 and halfway between three and four tenths” to 301.7. He freaks out and goes into a catatonic state. Concerned, Ferris and Sloane take him to a swimming pool – we never learn whose house it is – but he numbly topples into the water and sinks to the bottom. After a terrified Ferris dives in to save him, Cameron shrugs off his malaise and admits he fell into the pool as a joke. They all go back to Cameron’s house and attempt to rectify the car’s mileage by driving it in reverse with its wheels lifted off the ground. Of course, it doesn’t work. And in frustration with his domineering father, Cameron kicks the car so hard it crashes through a window and falls into a ravine. But it’s been an epiphany for him: he knows he needs to take the blame and stand up to his dad… The role of Cameron was offered to The Breakfast Club’s Emilio Estevez and Anthony Michael Hall, who each turned it down. Alan Ruck got the job and had recently been in a Broadway play with Broderick, which helped with the characters’ friendship here. A few years earlier, he’d auditioned to play Bender in The Breakfast Club.
* Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) is Ferris’s girlfriend, who colludes with him to fake a dead grandparent so she can have the day off too. At one point, Ferris asks Sloane to marry him, but she balks at the idea as they’re so young. She also has a touching, platonic connection with Cameron. After Cameron’s catatonia, Sloane asks whether he watched her get undressed: he smirks. Molly Ringwald asked to play the role, but Hughes reckoned it was too small a part for his muse. It might also have been that he wanted someone more classically elegant for the part.
* An unnamed teenager in police station (Charlie Sheen) acts as a therapist for Jeanie when she’s arrested: “What do you care if your brother ditches school?” Jennifer Grey had recently worked with Sheen on Soviet-paranoia movie Red Dawn, so suggested him for this cameo role. He reportedly didn’t sleep the night before to help with the character’s spaced-out look and demeanour.
* Katie and Tom Bueller (Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward) are the loving but gullible parents of Ferris and Jeanie (and, as filmed, two other kids – but they were completely excised in editing!). She works as an estate agent; he’s a businessman in the city. Katie nips home at one point to check on her ‘sick’ son. She creeps into his room and sees him sleeping soundly – it’s actually a mannequin and an audio recording of snoring. Tom is actually at Chez Quis at the same time as his son, but never sees him. They later have another near-miss in a traffic jam. In real life, Pickett and Ward became a couple during production and later married.
* The school’s economics teacher (Ben Stein) has a droll, dead, lifeless voice. When reading out the register, he gets stuck twice when no one answers: firstly on “Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…”, then on “Frye… Frye… Frye…” He later gives a flat, uninspiring lecture on what George Bush Snr called voodoo economics. The actor improvised the scene.
* Edward R Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is the dean of students at Ferris’s school, which is never named but presumably meant to be the same institution we saw in Hughes’s earlier films. When Ferris doesn’t show up for lessons, Rooney calls Mrs Bueller and admonishes her for his nine absent days. However, as he’s telling her, the number on his computer screen changes from nine to two: Ferris is at home, hacking into the school’s network. (Maybe he learnt how to do it from watching WarGames.) Rooney is determined to trap Ferris in his lie, and leaves school to track Ferris down. After trying a local bar, where he accidentally confronts a woman who looks like Ferris from behind (and misses seeing Ferris on TV at a ball game), he goes to the Bueller house. He tries to break in, but the family dog attacks him. After poisoning the pooch with flowers, Rooney sneaks into the house – but so does Jeanie, and the two come face to face in the kitchen. Jeanie screams and kicks him in the face. In a sublime bit of editing trickery, she runs all the way upstairs before he hits the floor. At last he rumbles Ferris, finding him trying to creep in before his parents see him – but Jeanie comes to her brother’s rescue. Dejected, Rooney leaves. However, his car has been towed away so he has to catch the school bus… Jeffrey Jones had played the inspiration for the character – the Emperor in 1984 movie Amadeus – so Hughes simply asked him to play the modern version.
* Grace (Edie McClurg) is Rooney’s off-kilter secretary. We first see her finding numerous forgotten pencils in her bouffant. Hughes cast McClurg again the following year, giving her a cameo-with-punchline in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
* An English teacher (Del Close) is giving a very pretentious lecture that’s boring the fuck out of Sloane when…
* …Florence Sparrow (Virginia Capers), the ridiculously named school nurse, arrives to tell Sloane the ‘news’ that her grandmother has died.
* The parking attendant in Chicago (Richard Edson) works for a company called A1 EZ OK Park. Ferris questions whether he can speak English because he looks vaguely foreign. “What country do you think this is?” he replies. Despite assuring Cameron that he’s a professional, he doesn’t park the Ferrari safely. Instead, he and a pal steal it for the day and drive recklessly round the city.
* The maître d’ of Chez Quis (Jonathan Schmock) is a snobby buffoon, who doesn’t react well when Ferris claims to be Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chiacgo. So Ferris uses a Hustle-style con involving phone lines to trick him into giving them a table.
* A singing telegram (Stephanie Blake) arrives at the Bueller household, dressed as a nurse and surrounded by other well-wishers. “I heard that you were feeling ill,” she sings. “Headache, fever and a chill. I came to help restore your pluck, cos the nurse who likes to–” Jeanie then slams the door in her face.
* A driver of a school bus (Dee Dee Rescher) offers Rooney a lift home during the end credits.
Close-ups: There are numerous examples of John Hughes’s love of storytelling through close-ups of inanimate objects. My favourites come when Rooney calls both the Peterson and Frye households to check on the cover story. In each instance, when we cut to the house all we see is a close-up of the answerphone. Sloane’s is surrounded by make-up, sunglasses and the colour pink; Cameron’s by medicine bottles. We don’t see wide shots of the room because the close-up tells us all we need to know.
Music: Terrific. The pumping electro-bass of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Love Missile F1-11 scores Ferris’s lecture to camera about how to fake an illness. There are some really witty pieces of incidental music. Check out the early cue when we’re cutting between Ferris and Cameron talking on the phone. The former is having a tropical drink on a sun lounger, so the music is perky and summery; when we cut to the latter, who’s sick in bed, the tune turns dark and ominous. The kooky, catchy Oh Yeah by Yello is used twice: when we first see the Ferrari and over the end credits. The Flowerpot Men’s Beat City scores Ferris, Cameron and Sloane driving into Chicago. The Star Wars fanfare plays when the parking guys are racing around in the Ferrari. During the parade, Ferris mimes along to Wayne Newton’s Danke Schoen and the Beatles’ cover of Twist and Shout. (In a bit of foreshadowing, Ferris also sings a bit of the former in the film’s first five minutes. Jeanie later sings a bit of it too.) The terrific climactic sequence as Ferris races home is matched to the sound of The Beat’s March of the Swivelheads (a remix of Rotating Heads).
Beatles references: Ferris quotes a John Lennon lyric from his 1970 track God – “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me…” – then tells us Lennon was the walrus. The Twist and Shout sequence is an unparalleled release of joy on a monumental scale – just look how many extras there are! Paul McCartney once said he liked this film, but objected to Hughes dubbing brass instruments over the Beatles recording. Hughes was hurt to learn he’d upset a Beatle, but argued that the addition was only to match shots of the parade’s marching band. Hughes also once claimed that, while filming Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he listened to the White Album every day for 56 days.
Smiths references: The sequence at the art gallery is scored by a gorgeous cover version of the Smiths’ Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Dream Academy.
Review: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.” This film is so many things at once. It’s a wish-fulfilment story along the lines of Weird Science. It’s a love letter to Chicago, John Hughes’s hometown, with loving helicopter shots and the camera swooning over architecture. It’s a demob-happy story about the end of an era – the two leads know their friendship may not survive them going to different colleges. It’s a superhero movie – how else do you explain Ferris’s ability to achieve what he achieves? It’s an assembly line of killer moments, witty dialogue, exciting sequences, scene-stealing cameos, laugh-out-loud comedy and – occasionally – genuine emotion. Above all, it’s *the* example of John Hughes the director. Working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Philadelphia, The Sixth Sense, 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate) and editor Paul Hirsch (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Mission Impossible), he created a classically beautiful piece of filmmaking. Seriously, watch it shot for shot. It’s stunning. The framings and compositions are just exquisite: beautifully balanced in and of themselves, but always telling the story or selling a joke or conveying an idea. (Notably, there’s no handheld camerawork at all. Ferris’s world is confident and precise.) This is the Pulp Fiction of teen comedies – everything may have been done before, but never with this amount of panache, this amount of style, this uncapped exuberance with the possibilities of cinema. But dry analysis shouldn’t – in fact, doesn’t – detract from how *massively* entertaining the film is to watch.
Ten righteous dudes out of 10