Film and drama

Screen Themes: Dream a Little Dream vs Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

By | | comments |

It’s time to jump in the DeLorean as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look back at two movies that helped define the 1980’s: the whimsical Dream a Little Dream and the comedy classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Dream a Little Dream 

Directed by Marc Rocco (1989) 

While this genre was pioneered many years earlier, with movies like Turnabout (1940), Goodbye Charlie (1964) and Freaky Friday (1976), body swap comedies were massive during the 1980’s. Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin set the bar high in 1984 with All of Me, while three years later, 1987 gave us Like Father Like Son with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore, which might have been the last movie Cameron made before he discovered the Lord and decided to never make a good movie again.

Australia’s bicentennial year produced the sporadically amusing 18 Again, starring George Burns and Charlie Schlatter; Vice Versa with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and with the body swap comedy that all others would be measured against; BIG. Starring Tom Hanks, this sweet-natured comedy ignored a lot of the darker aspects of the theme and focused on the fun, which doesn’t make it any less creepy when the mentally 13-year-old Hanks makes out with the vaguely predatory Elizabeth Perkins.

Dream a Little Dream doesn’t shy away from the darkness inherent in the body swap narrative, heading down a darker path than you might expect from a movie starring the two Coreys. Corey Feldman stars as Bobby Keller, a freewheeling teen who manages to swap bodies with Jason Robards through some kind of hippy transcendental nonsense. While Robards gets to be young again and struggle with the challenges of being a teen, Bobby finds himself in a dream world where he’s going out with the hottest girl in school and isn’t a bit of a loser.

The darkness in this film comes towards the end, where Bobby refuses to return to the real world and elects to stay in the dream. With the subsequent downward spiral of both Coreys (leading to Haim’s eventual death in 2010) it’s hard not to see Dream a Little Dream as an allegory for drug addiction. Dreams can make old people feel young again (at least for a while) and give the young an escape from the drudgery of reality — why would you ever choose to wake up or get sober?

The passage of time hasn’t been kind to Dream a Little Dream. The fashions that Haim and Feldman wear are frequently laugh out loud funny,and the fact that Haim’s comic relief character Dinger smokes cigarettes constantly looks wildly out of place in 2017. The only exception to this is the soundtrack — a bunch of catchy but slightly lesser-known classic hits including the awesome It’s The End of the World As We Know It by REM.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Directed by John Hughes (1986)

It is widely accepted that John Hughes was the best teen film director of the 1980s, if not all time. This is not to say that Hughes was in his teens during the '80s, or even that his movies starred actors who were teenagers, but Hughes captured the essence of uncomfortable teenage years like no other. From his 1984 debut Sixteen Candles, to Weird Science and the seminal Breakfast Club, John Hughes knew how to capture the highs and lows of being a young adult.

The tag line for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off succinctly captures the heart of the movie:

'One man’s struggle to take it easy.'

While the signature John Hughes teen angst isn’t entirely absent from this movie (Alan Ruck’s Cameron is a case-study of undiagnosed depression) the majority of this movie is relentlessly upbeat. It’s hard to watch Ferris Bueller and not smile — the character just has such a positive attitude to life.

Much of the credit for the tone of this movie must go to star Matthew Broderick in a career-defining performance. Played the wrong way, the character of Ferris could come across as entitled and smarmy, but instead Broderick manages to capture a sense of childish wonder and the feeling that anything is possible. Equally effective is best friend Cameron, the introspective yin to Ferris’ wildly expressive yang, slightly less so 80’s heart-throb Mia Sara as Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane.

If there is one role that is hard to watch in this movie, it’s Principal Ed Rooney, played by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Jones. The Deadwood star is over-the-top as the obsessed principal, but his escalating criminal behavior (from stalking, to breaking and entering) evokes an icky feeling when you discover the creepy stuff the actor is into. In a similar league is a young Charlie Sheen, playing an eerily accurate older version of himself.

Essentially a love letter to Chicago before it became a virtual war zone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off makes the city look amazing — even painting the opportunistic car thieves as mischievous scamps rather than hardened criminals. It’s this resolutely upbeat attitude that makes Ferris Bueller such fun to watch, even over 30 years after it was made.   

The Verdict

If the 1970s were all about cinematic realism and grit, the 1980s took a 180 degree turn towards fantasy and wish fulfillment. The decade that gave us unbelievable action flicks, like Die Hard and Commando, was also responsible for a host of clever comedies introducing a new generation of stars, from Matthew Broderick to Michael J Fox.

It’s easy to look at movies from the 1980s and poke fun at the fashion, hair and music, but if you can look beyond the surface there is a lot of depth to be found. Dream a Little Dream is a lamentation on life and the struggles of ageing, while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off raises the quandary of obeying the rules versus taking risks and embracing life.

Both movies are more complex than they appear on first look and are well worth revisiting for anyone who lived through the decade that fashion forgot.

Dream a Little Dream — 7/10

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — 9/10

Books by John Turnbull are now available on Amazon and Kindle. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Dream big dreams. Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by John Turnbull
Screen Themes: Nomadland is Easy Rider for the 2020s

John Turnbull checks out the multi-Academy Award-winning film Nomadland and its ...  
Screen Themes: Nobody vs Mortal Kombat

In the wake of the least-watched Oscars in recent history, entertainment editor ...  
Screen Themes: Soul vs Ex Machina

Entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of movies that examine the ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate