Everything critical race theory tells us to hate about the U.S.A. is in full, brash, arrogant and honestly charming display in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, just released in a new 35th-anniversary Blu-Ray from Paramount.
Does Ferris, the white, middle-class, suburban Chicago high-school student played by Matthew Broderick, survive as a contemporary role model? He’s more a relic of the Reagan Eighties, like Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton in the TV series Family Ties or Fox’s Marty McFly in Back to the Future — both teenage capitalists but political naïfs compared with Millennials mesmerized by the woke media’s socialist mind-melt.
This condition was prophesied when Ferris looked into the camera and introduced us to his elaborate plan for a day off from school:
“I do have a test today. It’s on European socialism. I mean, what’s the point? I’m not European. I don’t plan on being European. So who gives a crap if they’re socialists? They could be fascist or anarchist. It still wouldn’t change the fact that I don’t own a car.”
It’s a singular moment of the all-American desire and arrogance that defined writer-director John Hughes’s specialty: class privilege boasting pop-culture options. “Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ‘ism,’ he should believe in himself.” Ferris delivers that speech in the shower while wearing a punk’s shampoo Mohawk, then an ambisexual head turban. He references John Lennon and the Beatles yet is remote from Boomer culture. Instead, Ferris’s bedroom is decorated with then-hip British New Wave paraphernalia (posters of Bryan Ferry, Simple Minds, Cabaret Voltaire and Blancmange, an instance of echt Hughesiana).
These ironies make Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the most compelling of all John Hughes movies. It’s the one that cuts through the typical adolescent sentimentality in his popular Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club to reveal a truth about American cultural values that didn’t need to be stated outright in the Eighties, though it lay beneath the hypocrisies of contemporary American life: the new class conflict (the unacknowledged aristocracy) of millionaire celebrity socialists and politicians.
It would not be surprising to find that Ferris Bueller was a favorite film among a range of luminaries; Ferris’s like can be seen in the styles of John Roberts, Robert Francis O’Rourke, Drake, Billie Eilish, and David Hogg, who all reflect American acquisitiveness, aspiration, and individual (perhaps even reckless) choice.
Unlike the idealized, moralizing adolescent Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, Ferris is a refreshing hero thanks to his selfish singlemindedness. He exemplifies “the Chicago way” (as memorialized the following year in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables) inseparable from the Democratic Party politics of Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Lori Lightfoot, despite the film’s unusual acceptance of Republican Party ideals: Ben Stein was cast as the history instructor who broaches the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and “what Vice President Bush referred to as Voodoo Economics.”
Ferris brings his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his wealthy best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) along on his escape from economic mundanity via the bright red 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California that belongs to Cameron’s father. Cameron warns, “Less than 100 were made. My father loves this car more than life itself. He never drives it, he just rubs it with a diaper.” But Ferris’s judgment (“A man with priorities so far out of whack doesn’t deserve such a fine automobile”) is highly appreciative — and as American as anything uttered in Tom Cruise’s Chicago-set aspirational fantasy Risky Business. When the trio dines at the exclusive Chez Luis restaurant (ordering sweetbreads is a joke worthy of SNL when it was good) the maître d laments, “I weep for the future!”
We now live in that future where young pop consumers don’t have American Luxuries First role models like Ferris and therefore lack the self-awareness that used to come from identifying with the humanity of pop figures. Today’s bromides — “I don’t feel seen” or “people who look like me” — stop at surface portrayals and indicate unsocialized narcissism. Such youth are always exploited, if not by Hollywood then by media and college Marxists. They’re especially willing to accept mainstream exaggeration or simulation of their youthful privilege and commercialized narcissism (note that the hormonal sci-fi of Hughes’s Weird Science is superior to anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). American kids (and immigrant kids, too) all eventually join in on Hollywood’s capitalist fantasy premise.
That’s the secret of Hughes’s films (what else is Home Alone except the defense of homefront luxe?) Ferris Bueller can be understood as a bratty Harvard wit’s version of On the Road. It’s bohemian liberation that respects a suburbanite perspective — before counterculture radicalism curdled into the fascism and anarchism that Ferris dismissed in his intro.
The most authentic moment in Hughes-Ferris fantasy is not the “Twist and Shout” Steuben Day parade but the homecoming trek that uncannily replays John Cheever’s iconic Sixties short story of social mobility, “The Swimmer.” Ferris, racing to beat his parents’ return, runs through leafy estates and winding subdivisions: a family picnic; a backyard grill; past two sun-tanning beauties; girls gossiping on a porch; through a stranger’s living room and kitchen (“Smells delicious)”; then, finally, a jungle gym with a trampoline.
This montage of all-American amenities is lavish but strikingly common. It is what members of BLM and Antifa derive from and in fact envy.
The energy of that montage is truer than Cameron’s self-pitying “I gotta take a stand” speech, which is Hughes’s low point, patronizing his kid-audience by using phony James Dean rebellion that is bratty, vengeful, and not convincingly vulnerable. Hughes at his finest transfers National Lampoon humor into gentle, recognizable satire. The film’s best line (“I bet you never smelled a real school bus before”) satirizes genuine American experience just as Ferris’s adventure satirizes the freedom that used to be every American child’s fantasy and emotional right.