One of my favorite 1980s movies (which I have probably watched at least 50 times, because it’s always on TV) is John Hughes’ humorous 1986 study of teenage narcissist Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) and his plot to gallivant about Chicagoland with his girlfriend and his nervous, codependent friend Cameron in hopes of getting him to loosen up and live a little.
Ferris Bueller is a likeable character, who certainly doesn’t seem like a psychopath, only because his intentions are generally good (or seem to be), but the way he goes about achieving his goals flirts with lawbreaking and causes a lot of other people an awful lot of trouble. Ferris, for his part, seems too good-hearted to qualify for malignant narcissism or psychopathy, but given that this is a movie that was made in the Reagan era–the beginning of America’s love affair with narcissistic and psychopathic behaviors–its narcissistic hero must be likeable, while its real hero (Principal Rooney) is portrayed as a foolish villain with an extremely unlikeable personality. Then again, many psychopaths have considerable charm, and Ferris can shovel on the charm with the skill of a cult leader or a used car salesman.
Ferris is the most popular kid in school, because he’s just so cool. He’s not afraid of anyone or anything. He’s not a jock, so the geeks and nerds like him. He’s not a great student, so the troublemakers don’t mind him. He’s not enough of a dork or a geek to be disliked by the cheerleaders and football stars, so they like him too. Ferris has no enemies among the student body and offends no one–except the school’s staff, who see the psychopathy and narcissism behind Ferris’ outgoing, friendly, slightly eccentric but cool persona. They know he’s really just a spoiled brat who cares only about his own self-gratification.
Ferris is almost cloyingly nice, lies constantly, cons his friends, and is generally full of shit most of the time, but you can’t help liking him, even with all his over the top narcissism and psychopathic behaviors. He drives all his teachers insane. His principal Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) hates Bueller so much that a large part of the movie’s plot involves his quest to “get back at” Ferris for being truant yet again (apparently truancy is a bad habit of Ferris’s), chasing him all over the Chicago suburbs, and of course, failing miserably and looking like a pathetic fool by the film’s end for even trying. Ferris Bueller always wins.
Back at home, Ferris’ family is clearly dysfunctional. His mother (Cindy Pickett) is an ’80s-style malignant narcissist who has chosen Ferris as her Golden Child. In her eyes, Ferris is perfect and can do no wrong, even when the evidence to the contrary is right in her face. Ferris’ sister, Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), always gets the blame for everything that goes wrong and takes the punishment for Ferris’s shenanigans. Their mother obviously hates her guts. These two women are both as evil as they come, and I would bet that’s the reason they can’t stand each other. The mother obviously sees her daughter as competition.
While Jeannie is a nasty piece of work and an envious, spiteful malignant narcissist not much different from her mother, she’s clearly the family scapegoat so you can’t help feeling a little sorry for her in spite of her repellent personality and plot to destroy her brother, who she envies and hates with the white hot heat of ten thousand suns. Mr. Bueller (Lyman Ward) barely has a personality at all. As is typical of these kinds of movies and television sit-coms, Mr. Bueller is a slightly bumbling one-dimensional background character who always submits to his wife’s iron-fisted will. Clearly he’s codependent, but we don’t find out much else about him, except that he holds some sort of high paying white collar job, given the sort of upper-middle class neighborhood the family lives in.
Bueller’s best friend is the highly neurotic, schizoid/avoidant and obsessive-compulsive uber-geek Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), a kid who’s so tightly wound you’re afraid just watching him might cause him to blow a gasket. Ferris only means well for poor Cameron, and takes on “rehabilitating” his jittery, schizoid friend by convincing him to skip school for a day for a wild joyride through downtown Chicago, in (what else?) Cameron’s psychopathic dad’s brand new red Ferrari. (We know his dad is psychopathic even though he’s never on screen because of Cameron’s visible terror over the prospect of his dad finding out there were additional miles on the Ferrari at the end of the day). One can be pretty certain that Cameron is the scapegoat of his dysfunctional family. In addition to what seems to be severe OCD and schizoid traits, Cameron seems like he may be suffering from severe PTSD as well. The kid just isn’t right in the head.
Ferris’ day begins with an elaborately feigned illness set up so that he doesn’t have to go to school, and of course his adoring mother believes his bullshit and even starts talking baby talk to him. Ferris plays the part of the adored infant, making cute faces and noises for his mother’s benefit as he lies “sick” in bed. This is an adolescent who is still his mother’s “baby.” He never has to grow up or take responsibility for anything.
Ferris sets out to “rehabilitate” his nervous, paranoid friend Cameron, by convincing him to take the day off school and cons him into borrowing his father’s brand new expensive red Ferrari. He arranges for his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) to get out of school too by pretending to be her grandfather, telling the school that she has to attend her grandmother’s funeral.
And off they go. It’s hard to imagine how these three teenagers could get so much accomplished between 8 AM and 3 PM–attending a baseball game at Wrigley Field, dining at an expensive French restaurant (and enraging the snobbish maitre’d in the process), attending the Chicago Art Museum, and finally a huge parade through downtown Chicago, in which Ferris, naturally, steals the show by lip-synching the Beatles while dancing on a float. Like many skilled narcissists, he has irresistible charm and endless charisma. He’s an anti-hero for the Reagan era.
As the day nears its end, the kids lounge by the poolside. Cameron asks Ferris if he checked he miles on the Ferrari, and the bad news is that there’s no way to hide the number of miles they used from Cameron’s psychopathic father. Cameron blows a gasket at the news and enters a catatonic state of terror, while Ferris and Sloane go skinny dipping in the pool.
Feigning concern and empathy for his friend, Ferris talks Cameron out of his catatonic fog (which may have been feigned since he admitted he saw Sloane nude in the pool) and tries to roll back the miles on the Ferrari by running it in reverse. It doesn’t work, and Cameron loses the last shred of composure he may have had and throws a tantrum, ranting about his cold, unloving father and how he only cares about his car and wealth and cares nothing for his son. He begins to kick the Ferrari, which becomes loose from its anchors (it has its own private house), and the kids watch as the car crashes through the plate glass windows, and speeds off the hillside into a ditch below, becoming a smoking, totalled hulk. This is the only part of the movie that’s somewhat serious, and it’s hard watching Cameron realize just how abused and unloved he is. You worry what might happen when his father finds out his car has been totalled, but for Cameron, his rage was cathartic and he assures Ferris and Sloane that “No, it’s good.”
Meanwhile, Principal Rooney is on a quest to find Ferris and make him pay for his truancy and glib lies. Although possibly the only character in the movie with the slightest sense of morality, Rooney is made out to be a bumbling and spiteful fool who himself breaks the law by trespassing on the Buellers’ property and eventually breaking and entering.
Rooney, enraged by Bueller’s continued truancy, leaves the school for the entire day to stalk Ferris, even going to his house, where the Bueller’s dog attacks him. Meanwhile, sister Jeannie is on her own quest for retribution, but upon finding Rooney in their house, screams and runs to the police station to report an intruder. While there, she recruits a stoned juvenile delinquent (Charlie Sheen) to help her in her plot to exact revenge on Ferris. Of course it turns out that Sheen is another one of Ferris’ best buddies.
Mrs. Bueller, finding her daughter at the police station, flies into a rage and drags her home, berating Jeannie the entire time. As hateful as Jeannie is, her mother is more so. When questioned why she wanted to get her brother in trouble, Jeannie’s answer is, “why should HE get away with everything? I would get caught.”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is uproariously funny, but the dark truth is that it’s also a movie glorifying narcissism and psychopathy. It’s a movie about two disturbed boys (one probably psychopathic, the other codependent and probably suffering severe PTSD), and their dysfunctional, abusive families, with a subplot about incompetent school staff who break into students’ homes.
In 2009, Ruthless Reviews wrote an article, “Ferris Bueller, Psychopath,” which describes exactly how Ferris fits the criteria for Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. Pretty fascinating stuff here.
Only Rooney recognizes Bueller as a pernicious force that will certainly create great suffering and perhaps death later in life. A lone crusader, Rooney goes well beyond the duties of his job in an attempt to hunt down and destroy a budding monster. He is the Van Helsing to Ferris Bueller’s Dracula, the Dr. Loomis to his Michael Meyers. That’s because Bueller is a textbook psychopath. Let’s use the esteemed criteria of Robert D. Hare, the man who largely fathered the modern diagnosis and study of psychopathy.
NOTE: The PCL-R is a clinical rating scale (rated by a psychologist or other professional) of 20 items. Each of the items in the PCL-R is scored on a three-point scale according to specific criteria through file information and a semi-structured interview. A value of 0 is assigned if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. In addition to lifestyle and criminal behavior the checklist assesses glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behavioral controls, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions and so forth. The scores are used to predict risk for criminal re-offence and probability of rehabilitation.
I have copied Ferris’ psychopathy scores here; read the linked article for detailed descriptions of why Ferris fits all these criteria. The articles’s too long to reprint here. It’s a great read.
Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism”
Glibness/superficial charm: score 2/2
Grandiose sense of self-worth: score 2/2
Pathological lying: score 2/2
Cunning/manipulative: score 2/2
Lack of remorse or guilt: score 2/2
Shallow affect: score 2/2
Callous/lack of empathy: score 2/2
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: score 2/2
Promiscuous sexual behavior: score 0/2 (This is the only low score in the “aggressive narcissism” factor)
The fact that Bueller scores so highly on the first factor, aggressive narcissism, tells us that he is probably a case of primary psychopathy, meaning psychopathy is his root condition and probably biological, as opposed to being caused by other disorders or a poor environment.
Factor 2: “Socially deviant lifestyle”
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom: score 2/2
Parasitic lifestyle: score 1/2
Poor behavioral control: score 2/2
Lack of realistic, long-term goals: score 0/2
Juvenile delinquency: score 2/2
Early behavior problems: score 1/2
Revocation of conditional release: score 1/2
Traits not correlated with either factor
Many short-term marital relationships: score 1/2
Criminal versatility: 1/2
Total Score (for psychopathy): 31/40
Bueller’s score is impressive. A score of 30 is considered clearly psychopathic and, from what I can gather, is pretty uncommon. Erase the ease and privilege of his environment, and his young age, and he might score even higher in categories like “parasitic lifestyle” and “criminal versatility.” Rooney might be kind of an authoritarian prick himself, but then so was his doppelganger, Dirty Harry. Only Rooney can see the danger Bueller poses, especially as he has established a strong influence over other students. I’ve already mentioned it, but Ferris seems like a natural for politics (especially in Illinois) and the idea of him holding a powerful position is terrifying.
While Bueller cavalierly risks life, limb and jail for his own gratification, Rooney does the same in order to thwart and stifle a young psychopath. He would have succeeded too, if only Bueller’s dingbat sister hadn’t caved in at the end. Now Ferris will continue unimpeded and, by 2014, he will be voting to escalate drone attacks because of campaign contributions from Lockheed Martin. And he won’t lose a wink of sleep over it.