Kurt Cobain and George Bush didn't agree on much, but they had the same reaction when they ran into Ben Stein, who plays the stupefyingly boring economics teacher in John Hughes' 1986 masterpiece Ferris Bueller's Day Off, now out on Blu-ray. "Byoo-llerr? Byoo-llerr?" both Kurt and George said, imitating the droning nasal delivery of Bueller's name during morning roll-call that made Stein immortal. It's not just rock stars and Presidents -- everyone who meets Ben Stein says the same thing. That's when you know a movie is a classic.
As you'll recall, Bueller was not present when Stein read his name. He was at home feigning illness, so as to skip school for a glorious day, take his stunning girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), and uptight neurotic best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), on a spin through Chicago in his dad's beloved $350,000 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California, and -- most crucially -- thwart Ed, the Dean of Students (Jeffrey Jones), a cross between Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert and the Keystone Kops.
Ed is on to Bueller's con game -- while he's on the phone to Bueller's mom busting him for nine faked sick days in the school year, Bueller hacks into the system from home and reduces it to two. But if Ed can only catch him this one last time, he'll get to prevent his graduation and supervise Bueller's delicious detention personally, a la Hughes' similar hit The Breakfast Club.
Matthew Broderick beat the other candidate, John Cusack, for the lead role, because there are lots of scenes featuring Ferris directly addressing the audience, and Broderick had just done this a lot in the Neil Simon Broadway smashes Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. Great as Cusack (a Chicagoan) would've been, Broderick was the best casting ever. His big, dark, shiny, unsettlingly blank eyes radiate innocence and a confidence that is pretty much its opposite, while still retaining an uncorruptible core of goodwill. Hughes isn't exactly the king of plotting, or character depth, or motivation, so he depends on great actors to give his comic creations flesh.
Man, did he luck out on this one. Besides Broderick in his star-making role, there's Ruck as his best friend (they already had the requisite chemistry from co-starring for 18 months on Broadway), Jones in the pop-eyed dean role of a lifetime, his secretary (Edie McClurg) who keeps finding pencils lost in her bouffant hairdo, the classy beauty Sara, Jennifer Grey (with her original, far superior nose) as his seethingly resentful sister, and Charlie Sheen as the sister's bad-boy crush (if she only knew how bad!).
Some of the looks are dated (especially Mia Sara's fringed white leather jacket with shoulders worthy of the NFL), but high school never changes, and the school-skipping fantasy hasn't aged a bit. The Blu-ray transfer isn't impeccable, but it's worth getting because it intensifies the colors, making the kids' wild ride seem more vividly worth missing school for: catcalling batters at Wrigley Field, humiliating fancypants French waiters at a tony restaurant, seizing control of an actual parade attended by 10,000 people rocking out to Broderick lip-syncing to John Lennon belting "Twist and Shout."
When the kids go to an art museum and neurotic Cameron gazes into Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," freaking out when he realizes, panning closer and closer, that the painting has no outlines, it's just a bunch of blobby dots messing with his head, the Blu-ray really pays off. At the other extreme, Blu-ray lends grandeur to the reflections in Chicago's big black-windowed skyscrapers as the camera helicopter swoops by. What Woody Allen's Manhattan was to New York, Ferris Bueller is to Hughes' beloved hometown.
The extras are problematic. What's here is pretty dang good. The making-of interviews are mostly unusually informative, especially the chats with the insanely eloquent Stein, who wrote Nixon's resignation speech and dozens of bestselling books and hundreds of New York Times and Wall Street Journal columns but knows his obituary will read, "Bueller? Bueller?" The sappy music accompanying the extras features is horrid. There's hardly any deleted footage, and I'm sure there's plenty of it available. Far worse, there's no commentary track, though I'm told that one existed on older DVDs. Why is it missing here? I can only guess that Hughes, a control freak whose movies made north of a billion dollars, wasn't into it or wanted some more money. Why? When I met him at his enormous estate, he showed me the hill he built in his yard so he could ski -- it's the highest spot in the state of Illinois.
In the making-of interviews from 1986 and 1987, his mullet-and-shades cool-guy phase, Hughes explains that Ferris and Sloane were like him and his girlfriend-now-wife in high school, always accompanied by a loser pal. But when I interviewed him, he confessed to feeling left out as a kid from the pop culture party everybody else got invited to. His folks didn't have a TV, so he watched The Mickey Mouse Club through his neighbor's windows, nose to the glass, yearning. When he married and had a family early and took an advertising job, he finally managed to break through to pop fame by forcing himself on the reluctant staff of hipsters at The National Lampoon, the great magazine of the early '70s. When he'd drive around with Lampooner P.J. O'Rourke, O'Rourke made him hide his folded-up babystrollers, in case they ran into some girls.
If they'd found some, P.J. would've gotten all the action. Hughes does have his ultrasuccessful Ferris Bueller side -- he wrote this movie in six or seven days, The Breakfast Club in two, and the last 40 pages of Home Alone in eight hours, meaning he earned about $30 million an hour. But he is very much also Cameron, the neurotic who needs to loosen up, stop listening to his elders, and learn how to live right now. As Ferris says in his last, great direct address to the audience, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Don't miss this movie.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off is available now from Paramount Pictures.