Let me tell you about the 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris, portrayed iconically by a smarmy, fourth-wall-breaking Matthew Broderick, is a senior trickster at some Chicago suburban high school who decides one day he wants to, well, take the day off. He feigns illness, gets his best friend Cameron and girlfriend Sloane to cut school alongside him, and the three galavant across Chicago. They take in a ballgame at Wrigley; they masquerade as leaders of a Chicago sausage empire to get a table at a fancy restaurant; they appreciate masterpieces at the Chicago Institute of Art; they drive around in Cameron’s oppressive father’s Ferrari; Ferris leads the city in song and dance with a rousing lip-sync performance of the Beatles’ Twist and Shout. All the while, Ferris’s sister Jeannie and Principal Rooney each try to prove their completely warranted suspicions about Ferris’s deception. The dramatic conclusion sees Ferris racing and beating Rooney back home, foiling the slimy principal’s plans. Jeannie gets to make out with Charlie Sheen at the police station. Credits roll; Ferris admonishes the viewer for watching them. Fin.
Now, some might wish I’d issued a spoiler alert, but since over thirty years have elapsed since Ferris Bueller came out, I assume most of you have seen it by now; in fact, I’m counting on it to make my point here. To those in the minority who haven’t seen it, a) what are you doing? This movie is a classic for a reason. It’s more than worth the $3.99 to rent it on Amazon. Stop reading this and go watch it. Now. NOW! Go on, git! B) More importantly, as those who have seen it can attest, despite the fact that I laid out nearly every important plot point, I didn’t spoil the movie for you. It’s not ruined.
The philistines among you are probably saying, “Of course you ruined the movie. You said what happens!” I assure you, dear reader, what happens does not matter to this movie. The plot doesn’t make much sense. The characters make no sense. Our hero decides to do the wrong thing, the thing good parents teach their kids not to do, and coaxes his friends into doing the same. The villain of the movie is really the only person in the movie who actually wants to do his job. His sister was rightfully envious that her brother gets away with whatever he wants, so frankly, her effort to spoil his time, while kind of a buzzkill, is completely justified.
What makes Ferris Bueller so great is, well, great performances. Great, sweet, charming, hilarious, earnest, life-affirming performances. Forty years into his career, Broderick’s best performance is still the alluring teenage jackal in the leopard-print vest (although I admit, I haven’t seen such “classics” as The Night We Never Met, The Road To Wellville, or Addicted To Love, among others). The other performances—those of Alan Ruck, Jennifer Grey, Ben Stein, and John Jeffery in particular—are nearly as spot-on, allowing the film’s star to shine. And, John Hughes’s directing is bouncy and fun, as so much his work was in that era. There’s so much to enjoy about Ferris Bueller; the plot’s just fine.
I’ll be honest with you: I just don’t care that much about spoilers in general. I don’t tell people what happens in recent movies—I’m not LeSean McCoy (don’t click on that if you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame!)—but not because I think everyone should care so deeply about particular plot points. I just don’t do it because I know it upsets people, and I’m not a jerk. But, frankly, if there isn’t more to enjoy about a movie than the minor, specific plot points I see so many people freaking out about, it’s probably not a very good movie.
This isn’t to say that plot doesn’t matter; it just can’t be the only thing. For example, consider the widely panned Game of Thrones conclusion. Tasked with completing the final two seasons of a show with perhaps the largest, most compelling cast of characters in just thirteen episodes, the Thrones creators had to sacrifice the very character development that made the show so successful in the first place. The final two seasons of Game of Thrones were distilled plot and computer-generated images, and they stunk, and everyone hated them.
I’m not saying spoilers don’t exist or matter, either. For Ferris Bueller and movies like it, they might not matter. But, some movies, particularly those that build to a suspenseful climax or twist, aren’t nearly as effective if the viewers know the resolution beforehand. Before it became a pop-culture touchstone, Darth Vader revealing that he is Luke’s father was an emotional avalanche toward which the movies had built for two entries. Finding this out before watching The Empire Strikes Back handicaps the impact of the moment. That’s what a spoiler is: finding out something crucial and unexpected that damages the movie’s impact, not discovering some small, random plot point. Even still, why should knowledge of a single fact completely tarnish the movie-viewing experience?
There’s a pertinent scene in one of my favorite movies, Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon’s Will, a young, troubled genius, churns through a montage of mental health specialists through his intellect until he comes upon Robin Williams’ Sean. In an attempt to claim another victim, Will unnerves Sean by psychoanalyzing and ultimately belittling the loss of the latter’s wife. The gambit is unsuccessful, though, when Sean realizes the value in experience: “Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.” It’s one thing to know something; it’s another entirely to experience it.
And look, I don’t want to tell anyone how to appreciate any piece of art, because there’s no correct way to do it. We all seek different things in the movies, or music, or paintings that we enjoy. Anyone who wants to watch movies solely for the plot should feel welcome. Those people will just be missing out on much of what makes movies special.
LeSean McCoy truly spoiled part of Avengers: Endgame. He seemed to do it just to piss people off, which is abhorrent behavior. But he didn’t ruin the movie, because storytelling isn’t just about what happens. It’s about how it happens, and that simply cannot be spoiled. I can tell you Ferris Bueller goes to a Cubs game instead of school, but until you watch the movie, you can’t know the hilarious timbre of his voice as he cheers on the batter, or the sheer earnestness in Ferris’s voice as he fools his mom into believing he’s sick, or the sorrow on Cameron’s face when they crash his father’s Ferrari through a window. Oops, spoiler alert.