If teen-agers didn't already exist, John Hughes would have had to invent them. He has lovingly created all sorts of teen archetypes: geeky anarchists (usually played by Anthony Michael Hall), adorable princesses (Molly Ringwald's specialty), even Angst -ridden loners (Judd Nelson in "The Breakfast Club").
This time out, Hollywood's most adept chronicler of adolescent dreams has constructed the mythic teen-ager, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick). Too savvy for his parents, too cool for school and an absolute terror when it comes to restaurant maitre d's, this giddy scamp is the hero of Hughes' latest movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (San Diego area theaters).
The film's hook is a tantalizing fantasy for adults as well as kids: What if you could fool your parents and teachers (or for that matter, your boss) into thinking you were sick, earning yourself a 24-hour free ride from the boredom and responsibilities of real life?
But this time Hughes miscalculates badly, making his hero so smug and invincible that he doesn't give us any chance to root for him. What should've been a joyful romp turns into a stale, sour-edged celebration of the New Conformist, an affluent, technology-addled cherub without a rebellious whim in his brain. This is the new teen banality in all its spoiled splendor--it's "Risky Business" without any of the irony (though with an unsettlingly similar plot device involving a fancy car).
It's easy to understand why Ferris wants out of school. Seeing his classmates' blank, uncomprehending faces, you wonder which cult they've joined--their economics teacher can't even find anyone who's heard of the Great Depression. With enough high technology in his bedroom to supply a chain of Radio Shacks, Ferris effortlessly hoodwinks his dim-witted parents into believing he's home sick when he's actually out on the town. With similar ease, he grabs his neurotic pal Cameron (Alan Ruck), liberates his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) from school and the trio roar off in Cameron's dad's prized Ferrari. His suspicions aroused, Ferris' arch-nemesis, Ed Rooney, the school's frazzled dean of students (Jeffrey Jones), sets off in hot pursuit.
It's sad to see such promising material fizzle out so quickly, especially with a great wacko like Mr. Rooney on hand. With his bug eyes, beak nose and cartoon mustache--and often filmed in grotesque close-up--he's a jittery loon who looks as though he's been hijacked from a Federal Express commercial. (He's so concerned with appearances that when he rushes headlong down the school corridors, he skids to a halt in front of each classroom, takes a few mincing steps by the windows, then zooms off again.)
Hughes seems to view Rooney as an updated Inspector Clouseau (perhaps Wil E. Coyote too), even having Ira Newborn mimic the "Pink Panther" score when the hapless dean dogs Ferris' trail. It's a marvelous comic invention, but a grievous dramatic error. We find ourselves sympathizing more with the bumbling Mr. Rooney than with Ferris, who desperately needs a worthy opponent to make his antics seem less strained and frivolous.
The other major disappointment is Ferris' actual spin around the town--little more than a dull Chicago travelogue, something the kids could've done any Saturday, enlivened only by such an implausible fantasy scene that you wonder if Hughes just threw in a few pages of script left over from another movie. Since none of Ferris' exploits ever have any real drama or consequences, it's easy to lose interest--there's no passion here, no sense that these kids need to prove themselves or fight back against the zombielike confines of high school.
Hughes' attempts to inject a few serious notes into the film are also flops, especially a belabored subplot involving Cameron's strained relations with his dad (whom we never see). A homely guy who seems scared of his own shadow, Cameron is the character Hughes normally identifies with most; you get the feeling that Ferris' escapades are largely intended to free him from his inhibitions. However, their relationship is so muddled that Ferris' attempts to revive Cameron's spirits seem empty gestures. It's also hard to sympathize with Cameron's complaints about his dad's obsession with his car, especially after seeing a huge close-up of Sloane's Cartier watch and Ferris' mountain of stereo equipment.
When it comes down to it, it's hard to care about kids who have everything but (as they themselves say in the film) are interested in nothing. It's also a measure of "Ferris' " wrongheaded spirit that the funniest characters in the movie are the adults--Jones' beady-eyed Mr. Rooney, Edie McClurg as his ditzy secretary and a bedraggled economics teacher, played with deliciously droll comic timing by conservative columnist Ben Stein.
As Ferris, Broderick has a sly, choirboy innocence and a goofy, almost girlish swagger--he glides around corners as if strapped onto a hydrofoil. But all of the charm in the world can't make you fall in love with Ferris. He gets his way and he gets his girl, but Hughes has sculpted him as such an annoyingly complacent smoothie that he never comes close to winning our hearts.