My sons talked me into watching Expelled this week. It's an hour and a half I'll never get back, so I figured I'd spend more time trying to save everyone else from it.
The acting was so-so, with a few moments that rang true and just as many that were forced, canned, or relied too much on charm rather than honest emotion. As a Theatre Arts major with a directing emphasis, I blame the director (who is also the writer, which explains SO MUCH). The actors were talented enough that they could have pulled off a terrific movie if someone had been there to say "Um, yeah, that didn't quite work, did it? What, exactly, does your character want in this scene? What is he doing right now to try to get it? How does he feel about what he's doing?" Yanno, the basics.
But that wasn't the real problem with the movie.
The real problem was that, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, there was no actual change. No consequences. Nothing got significantly better or worse for anyone, even though several of the characters did Very Bad Things.
Let me explain. No, is too long: Let me sum up:
[Spoiler alert. Or whatever.] Prankster Felix pulls one prank too many and is expelled from high school in the first scene. For the rest of the movie, he pulls one felony after another (breaking and entering, hacking, blackmailing, theft, fraud, forgery, etc) all so that his parents won't find out and send him to the same juvenile prison-slash-school his older brother is already attending.
Along the way, he gets help from his brother who has escaped from the school, hooks up with the beautiful girl who delivers pizza to ex-high school boys during school hours, and discovers that the high school principal is embezzling money from the school fund (what school has $10,000 just sitting around that no one will immediately miss?!!) to support his nightly gambling habit.
Felix uses this information to... blackmail the principal into letting him back into school and lying to Felix's parents about Felix's grades and general progress in his academic career.
At the end of the movie, the principal is still the principal (and, we can assume, will now allow Felix to pull whatever prank he wants, whenever he wants, and will give him all A's for his trouble), Felix is back in school (with a 10-second nod to "gonna try harder"), and his brother is back in the juvie facility. OH, and Felix now has a hot girlfriend. So there's that.
When I complained to my husband about the movie, he naturally brought up Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that classic yarn of teenage invincibility in the face of overbearing adults trying to make the kids Be Good. Overlooking the obviously superior acting, There are several - okay a few - notable differences in the eventual consequences and especially in the overall message.
First, the Beuller movie is super-duper tongue-in-cheek, with overblown concern for Ferris's "illness" and fantastical escapades that intentionally stretch the limits of credulity. The tone in Expelled seems to want viewers to believe this sort of caper could actually happen - even with an "incredibly light sleeper" mother who slumbers on through ringing phones, creaking windows, and even banging drums.
Then there are the relatively minor pranks in Beuller compared to the antics in Expelled. Ferris wants to take a day off of school. Felix wants to destroy the rest of his life. Ferris fakes a sickness. Felix fakes a report card. Ferris lies for a day. Felix lies for a week.
The principal in Beuller is overzealous and crabby, with a mission to catch the trouble-maker Ferris and expose him for his lie. While his quest is commendable by adults everywhere, his personality makes it easy to root against him. This isn't necessarily a good message, but as an antagonist, he works. The principal in Expelled, on the other hand, comes off in several scenes as a stern father trying tough love... but then he loses all credibility and sympathy when he's first revealed to be a gambler and embezzler and then caves to the blackmail. Where the first principal is a kill-joy, the second is a felon. The kill-joy has a truly rotten, slap-stick-pain-filled day. The felon... is frustrated in his plans. Ouch.
Most notably, there is the classic Beuller scene where Cameron destroys his father's Ferrari, and remarks "I can't hide this." Cameron, at least, will have to face his father and admit what he did. There will be change of one sort or another, though we're not told what it will be. By contrast, Felix... destroys his mother's expensive ceramic bowl to create a distraction. He's forced to help clean it up. Yikes.
The climax in Beuller requires him to race home before his mother gets there. The climax in Expelled requires Felix to work a quick bit of theft and blackmail before his mother arrives at the school for her meeting with the principal. The race is thrilling. The blackmail is deeply disturbing.
At the end of the day (which is how long Expelled felt), Ferris Bueller's Day Off promotes light-hearted fun. Expelled promotes doing whatever you want, so long as you keep committing felonies until no one's the wiser.
So here's a tip for writers everywhere: If your characters don't ever have to face consequences for anything they do... don't bother making them do anything. Like with fantasy magic systems, you don't get to create actions and then skip the equal and opposite reactions. Real life has rules, too... even if you don't get caught.
So... Ferris Bueller's Day Off is on Netflix right now. Now that my kids have already seen (and enjoyed, dang them) Expelled, how do you think they'll like the original?