In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the eponymous high school student is always the smartest person in the room – even when he isn’t really there. Ferris’ presence is always felt as he and his friends masquerade around Chicago on a beautiful school day in May, intent to play the ultimate game of hooky. This loose narrative allows the film to play with its tonality, as various vignettes or scenarios play out that have little effect on the story other than re-affirming the brilliance of Ferris. In a sense, the film works as a farce focusing on this larger-than-life teenager, but along the way it manages to speak poignant truths with timeless importance.
It would be remiss to begin anywhere but with Ferris, as our introduction to the diegesis of the film is from his point-of -view. Ferris Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, looks up at his parents as he wails in pain. It becomes clear that Ferris is faking as he pantomimes taunts at his angry, unconvinced sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey). His parents fall for his performance hook, line, and sinker, and practically force him to stay home. As they leave the room he deadpans straight to camera: “They bought it.”
This short pre-title sequence introduces us to a number of stylistic elements of the film: Ferris breaking the fourth wall, the children sharing clandestine communication in the presence of the stupid adults, and Ferris always succeeding in his endeavors. These all contribute to the farcical tone of Ferris’ adventures, but also establish Ferris as a heroic, preternatural character. As he explains to us his motivations for faking his illness and his philosophies on life, we are firmly in his corner already, and we know he can triumph. This world is Ferris’ oyster, and he is determined to shuck one last time.
But he’ll need some help to experience all that life has to offer. He first recruits his actually sick best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), and then rescues his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) from the confines of school. In doing so, he must maneuver around the watchful eye of the dean of students, Ed Rooney, who is determined to catch Ferris. And while Rooney is not particularly stupid, he is no match for Ferris, who outwits him at nearly every turn. In this first instance, Ferris is able to goad Rooney into insulting Sloane’s father (actually Cameron, calling in collect her from class). When Ferris calls in on the other line, Rooney is aghast, and stumbles over himself. But Cameron is a little too lax during this conversation, and that spooks Ferris. So, he’s going to need a better car.
Hence, Ferris “borrows” the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder which belongs to Cameron’s father and takes it to pick up Sloane. This part of the plan goes off without a hitch, and Ferris decides to leave the car in a garage (the attendants promptly abscond with it for a joyride). While in downtown Chicago, the trio go to a Cubs game, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, Sears Tower, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and even Wrigley Field.
The sequence at the Art Institute of Chicago is nearly a dream. The trio wander into a room as the caboose of a long line of elementary school children on a field trip, which immediately instills the sequence with a tone of child-like wonder. We see the three staring at priceless Picasso pieces, contemplate Rodin sculptures, and even get simple montages of iconic pieces without any of our characters observing them. Our characters are here searching for meaning in the pieces, and that is especially true for Cameron.
In a series of progressive zoom cuts, Hughes delves into Cameron’s character without a single word of dialogue or moment of acting. Cameron is seen staring at Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat:
This is a masterpiece in the style of Post-Impressionism called Pointillism, where the overall image is a product of countless individuals dots. At a certain distance, though, these dots coalesce into an image. Hughes had remarked that he views this artistic style as reminiscent of a film as a whole. Any isolated piece lacks the meaning of the whole, whether a screenplay, a piece of music, an actor, or an image. But even more importantly, this sequence offers great insight into Cameron’s insecurities. While we start with a clear view of the painting and Cameron, as we zoom closer and closer we understand both that we are following Cameron’s gaze, and that Cameron thinks he has something in common with the little girl, which is where he focuses. As we jump cut ever closer, we see the little girl’s face dissolving into dots, and we get one last look at Cameron’s eyes. Finally, three more zooms on the girl, and she dissipates into mere color. Cameron is afraid that he is the same – the closer one looks at him, the less substance there is. Later on, when he finds his mettle, he is no longer afraid of being nothing. Cameron comes a long way from the sick, dad-fearing boy at the beginning of the film. When he explains at the end that, “Morris and I will have a little chat”, we celebrate him coming into his own.
This sequence is so poignant, yet utterly distinct in tone from the rest of the film that it nearly feels like a vignette. Hughes loved this sequence such that it originally occurred much later in the film; it was the last excursion that our trio engaged in – after the Cubs game, the Sears Tower, and even the Parade! This is a testament to the weight that Hughes puts on this portion of the film. It absolutely contains the soul of the picture, a brief moment for our characters to reflect on themselves and their places in this world. Predictably, test audiences hated it there. After the explosive fun of Twist and Shout, they weren’t prepared for such subtle self-reflection. Hence, Hughes moved the museum sequence forward in the film, and changed the score from a classical guitar solo to an instrumental only version of The Smiths’ Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want. The result is one of the more beautiful scenes in the whole of popular cinema.
Though the film is named for Ferris, he has much less of an arc, and much less growing to do than Cameron, or even Jeannie. He bests every one of his adversaries and wins the hearts of everyone with his fake sickness (the flowers keep piling up at his house, to say nothing of the call girls). But, at the end of the day, his message is the same as it was at the beginning: “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around every once and a while, you could miss it”. Ferris lives life to its fullest as his default, and he is presented here as a completed character – as something for us to aspire towards. We cannot skip school or work every day and sing in a parade, but we can remember to step aside every once and a while and reflect upon our place. Even Ferris does some of this, thinking about what the summer and beyond holds for him, Sloane and Cameron.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not a film which glorifies the abandonment of responsibility, or whim worship, but reflection and rational joy-seeking. Though Ferris has a test which wasn’t bullshit, he remarks that it is on European Socialism – and who gives a crap if they’re socialists? Far more relevant to his life is enjoying the cultural offerings of Chicago with his best friend and his girl, school day be damned. His day off is a chance to smell the proverbial roses, and reflect on his life and relationships. Should he and Sloane get married? Should he and Cameron try to keep connected after graduation? What does pancreas taste like? These questions – and far more important ones – can get lost in the doldrums of alarm clocks and bed times, Monday meetings and Friday Happy Hours, New Year’s Days and New Year’s Eves. Heed the wisdom of Ferris Bueller every now and again: stop and look around.