Ferris Bueller's Day Off is generally considered one of the most positive, upbeat teen movies ever made. Roger Ebert called it "sweet" and "warm-hearted," Ben Stein said it was "the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period," and Richard Roeper called it a "suicide prevention movie." Which is pretty surprising, considering it's about how a textbook example of a young psychopath takes advantage of other people. Really. To start with ...
Pretty much the defining feature of Ferris Bueller -- the thing that makes the plot of the movie possible -- is that he feels entitled to have anything he wants, and what other people think or feel is just an obstacle to smash through. In the Psychopathy Check List-Revised (AKA the Hare Checklist, named after its inventor, Robert Hare), a list of 20 items used for diagnosing psychopathy, there's a diagnostic criterion labeled "grandiose sense of self-worth" that Ferris' behavior would clearly fall under. By the way, we're going to go bring up that checklist again and again -- it basically reads like what someone would come up with if you asked them to list Ferris' personality traits.
Anyway, back to the movie. Ferris' bone-deep conviction that he shouldn't have to play by others' rules and that he's better than everyone else is evident in a million little ways. For example, in the restaurant scene, when Cameron and Sloane want him to stop scamming his way in and tell him he might get busted, he turns around and tells the camera, "If I'm gonna get busted, it is not gonna be by a guy like that." Which kind of tells you everything -- in his mind, the idea of a lowly maitre d' of all people busting him is almost offensive.
But perhaps Ferris said that because of the guy's mustache, in which case it's justified.
Later on, once Ferris' con works and they're all seated while the maitre d' apologizes and asks for their understanding, Ferris says, "It's understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate people like yourself." To him, it's all about justifying and maintaining his inflated sense of importance. And it's pretty mind-blowing to think that, somehow, this character is almost universally beloved. It's as if the con he pulled off in the movie -- being so charming that everyone falls in love with him -- worked on a meta-level, too. Speaking of which ...
One of the Hare checklist items is "glibness/superficial charm," which Ferris has in spades. It's his primary weapon, actually -- it's the "how," and his inflated sense of self-worth is the "why." In the movie, that charm works on virtually everyone (except his sister and Principal Rooney). He casually manipulates his parents, acting like a poor yet adorable sick boy; miraculously, every social group in his high school (the "sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads") all think he's a righteous dude; hell, even random adults who know he's sick express concern.
So, all in all, that superficial charm is apparently Ferris' default way of dealing with people he doesn't know well. When he does know someone well, like Cameron, he apparently just drops the facade and outright manipulates them -- with Cameron, he knows exactly which buttons to push and does so whenever he needs something. And, not too surprisingly, "conning/manipulation" and "pathological lying" are both items on the Hare checklist, as is leading a "parasitic lifestyle" (we're kind of starting to rack these up).
Ferris tells Cameron whatever he needs to tell him, regardless of whether it's true. At the start of the movie, he nags Cameron into coming over, and Cameron does what he says only because he knows Ferris will keep calling and make him feel guilty. This might sound like a pattern that's kind of annoying but mostly harmless out of context, but Ferris shows no remorse about that -- or anything else in his relationship with Cameron. Basically, he treats his best friend like he's a videogame NPC.
Maybe the whole plot wouldn't have happened if The Sims was around for Ferris to play.
There's no scene in the movie where Ferris shows a genuine emotion similar to remorse or contrition, let alone a desire to apologize. The closest thing is what happens when Cameron's car gets wrecked: in what looks like a sudden attack of conscience, Ferris offers to take the heat for the destroyed car. Cameron's dad hates him, Ferris, anyway, so he can take all the blame, he says. That kind of looks like remorse, but it isn't. Ferris doesn't express sorrow for what Cameron has gone through, doesn't think about what he did and how that might have affected Cameron (and everybody else), and definitely doesn't offer an apology.
But he does offer something concrete and potentially useful -- right? Having someone else take the heat would really help Cameron, after all. That's true, but there's nothing to distinguish that from the actions of a manipulator who's afraid they've pushed their mark too far and now might lose control of them. After a shock that powerful, it's definitely reasonable to expect that even Cameron could lose patience with Ferris and end their friendship, so the smartest thing for a long-term manipulator to do would be to try to absorb the shock. Which is exactly what Ferris tries.
And does that experience awaken a spark of remorse in Ferris that shows up later? No, of course not. When we see him with his parents at the end of the day, it seems like he's learned his lesson and is going to stop pulling the stunts he's been pulling -- but there's still no contrition. He never shows that he regrets all the pain and confusion he must have caused, much less that he might try and make amends. All of which means he checks the boxes on the Hare list labeled "callousness/lack of empathy" and "lack of remorse/guilt." We told you the list reads like a run-down of his personality traits.
Sure, most of the time, Ferris seems like he knows what he's doing and has the situation totally under control -- but that's only true in the short term. Big picture, he doesn't have a clue at all. After all, the plot kicks off in the first place because he just doesn't want to go to school, and, as we find out later, that's been a pattern all semester (and longer). In fact, he's skipped so many days, it's getting harder and harder for him to make convincing excuses. This is not a person with a well-thought-out game plan, is what we're trying to say.
And that is actually what psychopaths tend to be like, it turns out. Movie psychopaths are coldly calculating types, sure -- Hannibal Lecter is probably the archetype -- but real-life ones are ... not like that. The Hare checklist includes "impulsivity" and "lack of realistic, long-term goals," both of which are good ways to describe Ferris. Those traits show up throughout the movie: for starters, all the places he, Sloane, and Cameron go to are apparently chosen on impulse. And when he gets on that parade float and starts singing Danke Schoen? Again, from what we see, pure impulse. Sure, it's true that impulsivity is part of the fun of a day out, so it's natural that they'd do things on a whim, but it fits well with Ferris' long-term pattern of acting on a whim with no goals in mind.
Which, in real life, rarely means you can climb on a parade float.
And impulsivity brings us to a pretty key issue here: Isn't Ferris basically just a kid? Sure, he's impulsive, and he also acts callously and thinks he's the most important person in the world -- but aren't most teenagers like that? That sounds reasonable, but this area isn't very gray. Yes, Ferris is young, but he'd still be old enough to get diagnosed with psychopathy.
For one thing, the Hare checklist includes the items "early behavior problems" and "juvenile delinquency" -- so, antisocial behavior in early life is a clear sign that an adult might be a psychopath. More importantly, there's a growing consensus among psychologists that psychopathy can be diagnosed even in five-year-olds. The critical thing for diagnosis at that age is callous behavior -- they really, really have to be indifferent to any pain they cause. Other criteria, like self-centeredness and impulsivity, aren't too useful since almost every small child has those traits.
So, even if we applied the exact same standard to someone in his late teens (even though that's overkill), you could say pretty confidently that Ferris Bueller is a psychopath. He doesn't care about the suffering of even his closest friend and cheats and manipulates without a flicker of remorse. In other words, he's as callous as you can get -- so, even with the most restrictive standard, he could be labeled a psychopath.
Which brings us back to the question of how is it possible that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is considered a classic feel-good movie if its main character is a monster. And it's probably because he's a teenager pulling off what amounts to mostly low-stakes pranks. Sure, he might be secretly awful to everyone -- but at the end of the day, it's hard to see him as genuinely dangerous because he's perceived to be a kid and also because the things he pulls off don't really end up harming anyone (except for the good reputation of the real Abe Froman.). Nobody's livelihood is destroyed (except maybe Rooney's, but he brought that upon himself), no relationships are ended (in fact, he and his sister grow closer), no property is damaged (yeah, the car is totaled, but that's all Cameron). A movie like that lets you enjoy the positive aspects of Ferris' way of life (dismissing authority, getting what you want, not letting any obstacle stop you, etc.) without the negatives (all the pain, suffering, and jail time it would cause in the adult world).
Top image: Paramount Pictures