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The 'eighties were big years for teen / college / singles comedies, ranging from the sweet (Pretty in Pink) to the profane (Porky's). The mid-range budgeted were geared for low-stress laughs and considered great vehicles for new talent. The films I'm talking about were generally too light to be real coming of age dramas, although selected John Hughes movies occasionally broke through that barrier, along with precocious oddities like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Perhaps the template picture is Paul Brickman's Risky Business, from 1983. Its adolescent wish fulfillment fantasy for young Tom Cruise -- dancing in his underwear for apparent pan-sexual appeal -- is capped by impossible-dream sex with the beautiful 'older woman' Rebecca De Mornay. These pictures are definitely a cut above the soft-soft porn kid pictures, mostly independents, that pointedly involved underage adolescents with various adult babes, usually just on the peepshow level. Zapped! is about a science student (Scott Baio) who whips up Carrie- like telekinetic powers, that he of course uses to enhance his sex life. Sylvia "Emmanuele" Kristel was the draw in Private Lessons, a cable TV staple about a rich kid seduced by his own housemaid.
Back above the age level for legal consent, The Sure Thing is Rob Reiner's first conventional comedy romance after his This is Spinal Tap, which remains the cult benchmark for mockumentary genius. Writers Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts went on to successful careers after scoring points for freshness in this story of a romantic road trip on Christmas break. The show was well reviewed and became a big step forward for young actor John Cusack.
Desperate for female companionship, college freshman Gib Gibson (John Cusack) strikes out awkwardly with every girl he meets, mainly from trying far too hard. His 'imaginative' approach to the poised Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) gets him exactly nowhere. When winter break comes, Gib's pal Lance (Anthony Edwards) goads him into heading to California, where Lance claims a nubile sex partner is ready and waiting for him, a 'sure thing'. An arranged ride with the annoyingly straight Gary Cooper (sic) and Mary Ann Webster (Tim Robbins & Lisa Jane Persky) turns hopeful when Gib finds that the other passenger is Alison -- she's going west to visit her steady boyfriend, Jason (Boyd Gaines). Basic incompatibility with their hosts sees both Gib and Alison ditched out on the road, to hitchhike together. Their three-day adventure brings them closer together.
The Sure Thing is all over the place, inconsistent in tone and lacking in faith in its own concept -- but the assured personalities of its two stars makes it more than watchable. At eighteen years, John Cusack sometimes looks like a 6th grader -- he has an immediately likeable face. Daphne Zuniga was then 22; she exudes freshness and intelligence from every pore. The script asks Gib to be both a swell guy and a complete idiot. The good-looking Gib's lame and insulting approaches repel girls that would like him if he didn't behave so terribly. The Sure Thing doesn't try to be realistic in any of this, and it's light enough not to take seriously. The odd-couple hi-jinks with the slob guy and proper girl on the road don't really come together.
An example: after a day or so with the amusingly overplayed Tim Robbins & Lisa Jane Persky, The Sure Thing needs a reason for Gib and Alison to be abandoned on the roadside. Their car is mooned by another, and the kids get into an argument over whether Alison is repressed -- the only reason for that being her refusal to jump into Gib's arms in one of the eight or ten earlier moments in which he pressed his affections on her. At the height of the argument Alison takes off her top and flashes the car in the next lane, to show that she's not a prude. Zuniga couldn't play it better than she does, but it's just ridiculous for her character to do that -- the necessity for 'wild things' to happen overrides all logic. Most of the rest of the film moves from one predictable point to the next. Alison finds that her boyfriend in California now seems an intolerable square, now that Gib has "opened her up" with his fast food and beer chugging games.
The central linking device is Gib's sex fantasies about a California dream girl, his Sure Thing. The role of a fantasy sex symbol in a knit bikini is basically a model's walk-on; when she shows up as Gib's party date the script doesn't give Nicolette Sheridan's Sure Thing Girl a chance to do much but be available. Why the Gib character wouldn't at least be curious about her is rather a mystery, as he has shown no inclination toward shyness before. But this plot formula requires that he be humanized by LOVE, which causes The Sure Thing to suddenly lose her appeal. Ms. Sheridan becomes a lesser name among '80s sex symbols to play filmic fantasy lovers: Bo Derek, Kelly LeBrock, Rebecca De Mornay, Anne Archer, perhaps?
I like to think of Gib's daydreams with this Malibu babe as a criticism of the generic Tom Cruise movie of the decade, but the visual correlative for the dream visuals seems to be Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate, floating endlessly in his pool. The rest of the movie is klunky Boy Meets Girl mechanics: the kids are incompatible, then they grow on each other, then Gib's nuttiness saves Alison from the lecherous advances of a guy who picks her up on the road (Gary Goodrow, I think). Then they're all fun and jolly, pretending that she's pregnant to get rides. And then they separate angrily. But that doesn't last long either.
The considerable charm of the two leads encourages us to accept The Sure Thing as pleasant fluff. Miss Zuniga's career seemed to be heading upward until around 1989 and The Fly II, but she's worked steadily since. Cusak of course shot to minor stardom and stayed there. I can't think of a single movie he hasn't made better, or great -- High Fidelity will someday find greater appreciation. Despite his faulty story judgment director Reiner's ease with actors is surely the plus factor that allows the show to achieve its basic feeling of good will. The Sure Thing will be a nostalgic touchstone for the big chunk of experienced film fans that presently identify the 1980s as their 'golden years'. Too bad, I say... I personally become unhappy when the film has former film beauty Viveca Lindfors do stupid scenes, like embarrass Gib by reading his creative writing sample in the classroom -- which has been accidentally swapped with his roommate's sleazy letter to Penthouse magazine. Bad scene! Bad scene!
The production is simple but classy. Gib and Alison's attractively snowbound college is Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, while Jason's Los Angeles campus is good old UCLA. Students and Alumni will be amused by a shot in which a cross-country truck deposits Gib and Alison right in front of Janss Steps. Even in 1985, I believe, that bit of roadway was completely blocked off to traffic. It looks great, though. I recognize the one shot of the frat party location as well. It's right off campus, a couple of doors down from Sigma Nu.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of The Sure Thing is an attractive scan of this Embassy release, now held tightly in the paws of MGM's Leo the Lion. Colors are excellent and the two stars look consistently attractive; fans of the picture are going to love it.
The disc comes with a making-of docu broken down into four brief featurettes to avoid being considered a new production for which talent residuals might be owed. A trailer is included as well.
Rob Reiner's full feature commentary is relaxed and informal. He doesn't offer a wealth of information about the film but we do enjoy his personal memories as cued by images on screen. He admits right at the top that he was intimidated by Nicolette Sheridan's beauty during her audition, so much so that they figured it wasn't necessary for her to strip to a bikini for him. He also says that somebody else filmed her Malibu glamour scenes for the opening, as if he couldn't handle it. It makes sense -- The Sure Thing isn't a repressed sex comedy, but it comes close. Maybe that's part of its charm. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sure Thing Blu-ray
1. I think I might understand Reiner's reaction to meeting Sheridan in a situation where she's 'turning it on'. I was once in an elevator alone with Charlie's Angel Jacilyn Smith and we talked for a second. The words were automatic but I was completely overwhelmed -- she was dressed to kill for some business meeting, and projecting her appeal like an aura. Likewise during the production of TV spots for a Cannon film called Salsa one of the 17 year-old dancing stars was a gorgeous Latin woman named Magali or Angela Alvarado, I forget which. In a voiceover session I only had to direct her to read one of her lines (more clearly than in the feature). You get too close to the perfume, might be the problem: I thought I was going to melt like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon. Sometimes that quality is captured by the movie camera and sometimes it isn't, they say.
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