A film going along for the ride, tracking teens playing hooky

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In his continuing attempt to make the perfect teen-age movie, John Hughes has focused mainly on girls -- played mainly by Mollie Ringwald, his prot'eg'ee -- in pictures like ``Sixteen Candles'' and ``Pretty in Pink.'' Since his latest comedy zeroes in on a boy, it may be that ``Ferris Bueller's Day Off'' is a more personal film, a more direct expression of Hughes's own experience. But that doesn't mean the movie digs any deeper or rings any truer than his earlier epics.

Ferris Bueller is no more complex or compelling than other Hughes heroes, and his ``day off'' is just another frivolous episode, expanded to feature length through the magic of superficial screenwriting.

Played with characteristic charm by Matthew Broderick, the title character is a likable goof-off who sees high school as a minor obstacle in his path to a nonstop good time.

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Deciding to take one of his habitual days off, he begins by faking an illness or two. Then he lures a reluctant pal and a willing girlfriend into the plot, and commandeers a classic car from a neighboring garage.

The rest of the story details his guilty pleasures (a wild drive, an expensive lunch, a sunny swim) and the efforts of a fanatical school official (played by Jeffrey Jones, leaving behind the brilliance he showed as the emperor in ``Amadeus'') to track him down and pin a truancy rap on him.

As in most Hughes movies, there's an earnest undercurrent running through all these shenanigans -- a sense that the filmmaker sees the adventures of his heroes as high-spirited metaphors for a better, freer, more exuberant life than middle-class adulthood can offer.

Hughes also tackles some potentially fascinating themes in ``Ferris Bueller's Day Off,'' including the deep rivalry between Ferris and his sister. He even achieves one or two striking (if self-conscious) moments of teen-age epiphany, as when Ferris's best friend gazes transfixedly at a pointillist painting in a museum, probably having more of a ``learning experience'' than school has given him in years.

Once again, though, the filmmaker's small-time sensibilities put a damper on the show.

Hughes identifies so closely with his characters that he becomes one of them -- seeking not to understand, but merely to wallow in their shared obsession with cars, comfort, budding sexuality, and freedom from responsibility.

His portraits of their adversaries (square schoolmates and authorities) are accordingly simple-minded and cartoonish.

And he indulges his usual attitude of airy contempt toward the parents who have provided Ferris and his friends with every middle-class luxury they could possibly ask for -- although poor Ferris gets a nod of sympathy for having received a computer as his latest gift, not the automobile he so desperately needed.

I remain interested in Hughes's quest to capture teen experience on film, but I'm disappointed that he still hasn't gotten more than an inch below the surface of his subject. ``Ferris Bueller's Day Off,'' hovering between the pretentiousness of ``The Breakfast Club'' and the stupidity of ``Weird Science,'' is a minor summertime diversion that could have been much more.

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