John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the best example of a film where the reputed hero is actually the villain. Though Hughes’s finest moment both as writer and a director, the film still takes for granted its upper-middle-class teen hero’s ownership of everyone and everything around him; beneath the film’s stylistic swipes from the French New Wave is the very personification of American entitlement. It’s a bridge too far to suggest that Hughes’s earlier smash, The Breakfast Club, is the inverse of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or to call it a film wherein the supposed villain actually turns out to be the hero. Paul Gleason’s autocratic Assistant Principal Vernon lords over the film’s quintet of niche-filling teenage protagonists, who are spending Saturday serving detention, with all the subtlety of Strother Martin playing Cool Hand Luke’s sneering prison warden. And yet, that he assigns the jock, the prom queen, the nerd, the bully, and the space cadet to write a thousand words about who they believe they are suggests he’s as concerned for the inner turmoil of the adolescent set as the film’s club members are themselves.
The quintessential Brat Pack vehicle, hampered by Hughes’s willingness to pigeonhole his protagonists in exactly the same manner as they accuse Vernon of doing, The Breakfast Club is hopelessly tethered to its era in ways that the same year’s other major high school-themed blockbuster, Back to the Future, isn’t. And that film’s entire subtext mirrors the ’80s against the similarly regressive ’50s. (Robert Zemeckis’s jaunty contraption arguably offers more cross-generational insight at any given moment than every incident of Vernon and Judd Nelson’s Bender sparring combined.) It’s not just the totally to-the-max duds or Hughes’s reliable fixation on stacking his soundtrack with perfect college-radio needle-drop cues. Rather, the film’s characters operate within or, in unfortunate cases like Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian, fight in vain against a disagreeably Reagan-era social context that finds young suburban Americans unsure about any number of things about themselves—except that their struggles are truly the only thing in the world that matters.
And, in true Reagan-esque fashion, the film gets away with it. Rather than writing essays, Bender, Brian, Andy (Emilio Estevez), Claire (Molly Ringwald), and, when she’s not tossing lunch meat around the room, Allison (Ally Sheedy) spend their entire detention engaging in what François Truffaut immortalized as les quatre cents coup. These teens snarl in the face of authority, break in and out of the school library (and one school closet), smoke pot, let their hair down, indulge in leftfield dance montages, and cry together. Hughes intended for this feature-length bonding session to break down whatever bullshit high school barriers his characters perceived to be separating them, which might have been an admirable goal if he managed to take it to its logical end point and if the elimination of said barriers also resulted in the eradication of their accompanying hierarchies.
But even though The Breakfast Club abounds in soul-bearing moments throughout, it’s only after Claire the Princess gives Allison the Unpolished Diamond a mall makeover that Andy the BMOC realizes that she’s dateable. Then, everyone gangs up on Brian the Meek to write their “collective” essay, which he obliges while everyone else is having their bittersweet and sorrowful partings in the outside world, raising a triumphant fist to the accompaniment of Simple Minds’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” while everyone forgets about the geek they conned into doing their homework for them.
John Hughes’s sophomore effort was no high-budget affair, and its gauzy 1980s pallor endures throughout, to the extent that the film’s target audience would care. While there’s a friendly, filmic look to the transfer, it’s also alluringly soft, even downright Love’s Baby Soft. The cerulean beams of the school library’s neon-lit second floor balconies provide an appealing contrast to the room’s maple paneling and redhead Molly Ringwald’s clashing pinks. The sound options are twofold: the original (and very much serviceable) monaural soundtrack and the 5.1 remix, which doesn’t really offer much in the way of difference aside from blowing out those accursed music cues.
Maybe less so than usual among their more recent mainstream Hollywood titles, only a few of the bonus features that the Criterion Collection includes in this package hail from previous home-video editions of the film, though they’re both headliners. The audio commentary from Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson is ported over from an earlier Universal Studios Home Entertainment release, and it’s nice enough, though one wishes Criterion would’ve tried to get Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Ally Sheedy into a room for a counterpoint. The other retread is the nearly hour-long documentary retrospective "Sincerely Yours," which includes not only cast and crew members, but jeremiads from Hughes contemporaries like Amy Heckerling. Masochists can catch an extra hour or so of the film via the disc’s collection of deleted and extended scenes. (This reviewer confesses he bailed on these after maybe seven or eight minutes.) And those still lighting a candle for the departed Hughes will be happy to bask in a 1985 AFI seminar clip with the writer-director, as well as a very Chicago-centic 1999 radio interview, and Judd Nelson’s recitations from Hughes’s production journal for the film (Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph it’s not). Finally, a brave essay by David Kamp is included in the disc’s accompanying booklet.
It’s been a while since Criterion fanatics have gotten to decry a new, cash-grabbing title sullying the purity of their home-movie shelves. What can they say? Niche gotta eat too.