Real talk, folks: Matthew Broderick is never going to get another role as good as the whip-smart, adorably sarcastic Ferris Bueller, the quintessential high school hero of the '80s. Broderick was perfectly cast in John Hughes' 1986 classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off in a role that required of him three key skills -- mischievous charisma, comedic timing, and that which he had in spades: boyish charm. He was so good, so epically iconic, that he pulled off shenanigan after shenanigan while wearing a leopard-print sweater vest, for goodness sake. And therein lies the rub; will Matthew Broderick ever chance upon another role as stars-aligning-in-the-heavens-perfect as that again?
My money says no, but it's not like Broderick hasn't enjoyed his fair share of great roles. My personal favorites came in The Early Years, when he appeared as a young hacker in WarGames (1983) and as Rutger Hauer's cute monk sidekick in the prog-rock period piece Ladyhawke (1985), two Oscar-nominated adventure films that fed my young girl-crush on the burgeoning actor.
After Ferris Bueller's Day Off debuted in the summer of 1986 and became a hit, Broderick seemed to turn towards more serious fare. He starred in the sometimes comic, sometimes very dark animal experimentation thriller Project X (1987) opposite Helen Hunt (also known as Aww, He's Friends With Monkeys!). In 1988, Broderick parlayed his newfound screen stardom into two films based on stage plays he'd starred in, Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues and Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, and then led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Ed Zwick's 1989 Oscar-winning Civil War film, Glory.
But as the '90s unfolded and Broderick approached 30, he started to falter. (Out on a Limb, anyone?) What followed was an up-and-down period: he voiced the grown-up Simba in The Lion King and played one of his first straight guy roles in The Cable Guy (not a character type I enjoy him in, by the way), but he also took part in the travesty that was Roland Emmerich's Godzilla. Thank goodness for Alexander Payne's Election, which pitted Broderick's increasingly desperate high school teacher against Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick, and was one of the bright spots of this period in Broderick's filmography. (You Can Count On Me was also solid, but was sandwiched between Inspector Gadget and the tepid two-fer of his telefilm The Music Man and the dog adventure, Good Boy!)
And don't even get me started on how Broderick spent the '00s. The Stepford Wives. The Producers. Deck the Halls. Bee Movie. Not a single film that even came close to capturing the magic of one carefree teenager's day of freedom from teachers, parents, and the oppression of a six-hour school day.
All of which brings me back to Bueller. It took a special actor to play Ferris, the fearless teenage protagonist of Hughes' classic comedy, but Broderick had it: the smooth-talking street smarts, the relentless likeability, the preternatural swagger that made girls want to date him and guys want to be him. (As Grace the secretary says, "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.") Every single scene he's in succeeds on the strength of Broderick's charisma, whether he's pulling shenanigans on a snooty maitre'd as Abe Froman, The Sausage King of Chicago, playing coy and sniffly with his unsuspecting parents, directly addressing the camera and making us his implicit accomplices, or inciting the entire city into an impromptu dance party set to "Twist and Shout" during a parade.
During his Band of Outsiders-like day trip with bestie Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara), Ferris revels in the spotlight, an infectious beacon of light in the lives of everyone he touches. But even in the serious moments, Broderick balances playfulness with genuine maturity, showing his friends (and us) that he's well aware of the consequences of being a grown up, whether it's taking the heat for destroying a hot rod or maintaining a relationship once he goes off to college.
(I also get a little kick out of every scene Broderick shares with Jennifer Grey as his resentful, jealous sister Jeanie, who spends her day trying to get Ferris in trouble. Their sibling chemistry is so palpable, is it any wonder the two dated IRL? Admit it, that's kind of perversely fascinating.)
The cruel reality for Matthew Broderick is that he can't really count on that boyish charm any longer; he may just be too old. The closest he's come in recent memory has been as Ben Singer, a misanthropic former children's songwriter in the indie flick Wonderful World. Sure, he hates people, but that's exactly what's most endearing about him. Eh, it's a bit of a stretch, but with any other actor the character would just come off as unlikable, instead of mostly unlikable with a certain boyish charm. In any case, Ben Singer is certainly no Ferris Bueller. But then, who is?