Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sure Thing

(PG-13, Embassy Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: March 1, 1985)

"I was a freshman at a small southwestern college. I never thought these letters were real until a few days ago, I had an experience that changed my mind. I just had to share it with you..."

There was a reason I never felt satisfied being a writer at, an online shopping site which I used to find my voice as a film reviewer ever since attending Apache Junction High. It had to do with my enthusiasm for communicating my thoughts on movies, which often had me typing what seemed to many like full-fledged dissertations instead of mere buying guides. I can't even begin to count how many comments I received from impatient readers despite consensus votes of "very helpful." You could say I was unconsciously preparing myself for the sleepless, soul-crushing hell that is writing your thesis, but I just knew what I liked and unleashed the filter. I couldn't have cared less how long it took you to read it, so long as you understood my position and learned something out of it.

So there I was in early August of 2003, with three DVDs from a recent trip to Best Buy. Two of them are movies which accrued huge cult followings thanks to the presence of star names in promising breakout roles, the other I picked up for free mainly due to a breath-robbing crush on its lead actress carried over from my elementary days. I'm talking, of course, about Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985), Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl (1983) and Boaz Davidson's The Last American Virgin (1982). The first and third titles hold a very personal significance because if I hadn't seen one on VHS numerous times as a boy, then I wouldn't have realized that my inamorata would come back to thrill me at the close of my adolescence as she did when it began.

It was Lane Meyer and Monique Junet of Better Off Dead..., themselves, worlds apart in movies of contrasting attitudes regarding teenagers. I'm still reeling from my recent decision to focus on the career of the woman who made my Greendale-by-way-of-Paris heartthrob so deeply integral to my childhood, especially now that I realize just how loveable Diane Franklin is in person. I feel as though I need a warm-up before I even begin to make some kind of objective reunion, so I've chosen to give a second Epinion to The Sure Thing, the other 1985 romantic comedy featuring the leading man of Better Off Dead...

Nobody in my family other than me had the fortitude to find entertainment from Rob Reiner's debut This Is Spinal Tap, a shaggy, side-splitting satire of over-the-hill rock stars. And yet, it was my sister who introduced me to Reiner's third film, the exquisitely poignant Stand by Me, which I still hold up as his zenith. C'est la vie! The Sure Thing, therefore, is the proverbial middleweight in hindsight, an obvious attempt at updating Frank Capra's 1934 romantic farce It Happened One Night, which netted all five of the major Academy Awards, for the 1980s slobs vs. snobs/teenaged sex comedy market. I was so cozily familiar with The Sure Thing over the years that of all three of the titles I mentioned shopping for, that was the one I was most eager to have in my library.

John Cusack, not unlike Lawrence Monoson of Virgin, was a true life teenager at the time of filming. Although he had previously appeared in bit parts (Class, Sixteen Candles), being cast in the main role meant Cusack had to be legally emancipated and placed under the custody of producer Roger Birnbaum (Henry Winkler is credited as an executive producer). But it was Reiner who nurtured his natural talents and is responsible for unleashing the first beloved John Cusack alter ego of the decade, Walter "Gib" Gibson. Sure, Gibson is typically concerned with sex, libidinous enough to compete with the post-Porky's crowd, but he's introduced striking out twice with a ready-made speech about a "cosmic Adam and Eve," solemnly licking his senior year wounds in the company of his dim-witted best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards).

The two budding freshmen go their separate ways upon graduation, with Lance heading to California and Gib opting for the Ivy League, where his bad luck streak continues unabated. It could be because Gib decides to make a move on the worst possible prey, Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga), an overly prim preppie who lives her life as dictated by her schedule instead of her instincts. After tricking her into a study session to keep him from flunking English, and eventually being rejected with a swift kick while he's down, Gib is further demonized by Alison when their vivacious professor Taub (Viveca Lindfors) reads Gibson's saucy Penthouse letter aloud in class.

Lance calls Gib on the verge of winter break offering mercy in the form of a hot, nameless blonde (Nicollette Sheridan) who bears the titular description, her uncomplicated desirability telegraphed in the opening credits via a sexy, string bikini-clad sunbathing montage to the tune of Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" (was Kay Lenz unavailable for the role?). Gib darts out looking for convenient transportation and winds up accepting the same carpool that Alison has claimed for the same westbound destination, where she will be reunited with her equally stuffy fiancé Jason (Boyd Gaines). Naturally, the two spar with each other to the point where they break the will of their flagrantly chipper, musical-mauling hosts (Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky, ace scene-stealers) and are left to fend for themselves.

A reluctant friendship forms between Gib and Alison as they endure all manner of on-the-road hardships ranging from skeevy redneck drivers to utter destitution, as the slovenly but sensitive Gib wears down Alison's defenses. But by the time they make it to Los Angeles, Gib's unspoken intentions insult Alison's intelligence in a less superficial way, and the next time their paths cross means it's time for decisions to be made.

The Sure Thing thrives on the diametric synthesis of John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, both cast principally on Reiner's own whims about the kind of personalities he felt most intriguing to follow. Gib is a boor, but far from a bore, a motor-mouthed scholar of constellations and comfort food (pork rinds and cheese balls, washed down fittingly with beer) yet so quick-witted and absent of malice in his charisma that he's hardly an outright creep. He's precocious enough to fool bartenders into serving him double bourbons, but has enough wounded soul in his eyes to mix right in with the hapless geezers in his company, enjoying a festively inebriated sing-along of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...").

Alison, meanwhile, is naturally beautiful but resigned to her own studious form of security. She's completely justified in mistrusting Gib initially, even after he apologizes for his priggish persuasion, but could definitely benefit more from the companionship of such a misled but mirthful opposite number. Alison gets along with Gib with relative ease, given that she enjoys a good swoon at Graceland or a game of car window peek-a-boo ("Come to mama, boys!"). Like some bizarre inverse of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope, which has been applied to Monique from Better Off Dead..., it takes a Gib to loosen up Alison to the point where not just can she shotgun a can of beer like a pro, but also to feel the kind of legitimate disappointment that could conceivably lead to bookish barriers.

It's amazing to see Cusack, the master of droll and deceptive comic invention, reach highlight reel gold so early on. His first memorable monologue is a guilt trip Gib lays on Alison in an indoor pool, bellyaching about his tragicomic prospects as a college failure beginning with the shame of his parents to his eventual imprisonment and insolvency:

"And then one day, they find me, face down, talking to the gutter, clutching a bottle of paint thinner. And why? Because you wouldn't help me in English, no! You were too busy to help me, too busy to help a drowning man!"

Never has a character getting soaking wet felt like such a hilarious punch line. Reiner captures this with a typically unbroken shot, representing the kind of lightly confident touch and trust in his actors that would reap dividends with even younger stars on his next project. There are tons of other throwaway quips ("Did you know that Nietzsche died of syphilis?"), deadpan reflexes and full-blown set pieces ("I'm talking about a total maniac!") that need to be seen to be believed for anyone in the dark about Cusack's innate humor.

Zuniga, meanwhile, is just as beguiling despite her rough demeanor, countering Cusack's rakishness with all the seasoned frustration of a jaded spouse before letting some well-earned giddiness seep in, especially when Alison feigns pregnancy as an advantage to hitching (it'd be fruitless for her to bare her gams Colbert-style given she went topless purely for fun). She has a few priceless reactions, especially the disheartened realization that her father's credit card is to be used only in emergency situations, like the one she and Gib are currently in.

Steven Bloom and Jonathan Roberts' screenplay (which Bloom leadenly revived in 1998 with the Paul Rudd/Reese Witherspoon vehicle Overnight Delivery, never mind the fact that the team co-wrote the 1998 Jack Frost with Michael Keaton) has more zip and wit than the normally base forbears in the horn dog pound of youth-oriented comedy, and Reiner obliges by eking out consistently appealing supporting work from the great Viveca Lindfors (her philosophy: "Make love in a hammock!"), Anthony Edwards as Lance ("Every relationship starts with a one-night stand"), Joshua Cadman as Gib's bulky but seductive roommate Jimbo, George Memmoli & Sunshine "Cowboy Guy" Parker as the amiable barflies Gib befriends, and a young Nicollette Sheridan, whose character is essentially thankless (her Sure Thing's kicked to the curb without much dignity) but not without a certain spark, one which was better ignited on the small screen as Edie Britt from Desperate Housewives.

(Interestingly, aside from Tim Robbins, one of Gib's football friends is another frequent Cusack collaborator Steve Pink, co-writer of both Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, and director of Hot Tub Time Machine).

There are so many keen nuances to be discovered (notice how Robbins' Gary Cooper's clothes are, indeed, color-coordinated) and nuggets of disarmingly uproarious dialogue (repulsed by his Hawaiian party get-up, Gib jests that he ought to just "shave my head and join a Polynesian monastery") that The Sure Thing proves bountiful with each repeat viewing. Bloom and Roberts' plot may be structured with sound reliability and slavishness, but there was no point in time more kind to Rob Reiner than the 1980s, and he's every bit as perceptive and playful as prime John Hughes. The movie earns its emotional wavelengths and pretenses to realism by not letting the juvenilia fully overwhelm its intelligence. It's traditionalist and fittingly quirky in all the right ways, a balance even Hughes often strained to perfect.

The Sure Thing doesn't condescend for an inch, making all 3000 miles of its lovelorn trek an utter delight.

"...It was a movie, that's all. A movie like any other movie. A movie like no other movie."

MGM's DVD release of The Sure Thing was, like Valley Girl, given the royal treatment. However, whereas Deborah Foreman was sadly absent from the interview-based supplements on Girl, both Cusack and Zuniga as well as Reiner, Birnbaum, Sheridan (who dominates the few outtakes included as hidden menu features), the screenwriters, the casting directors, and more appear to discuss the experience of making the film. The real treat is seeing Cusack so misty-eyed and humble after all these years in regards to his respect to Reiner, unlike the next director he'd go on to work with. There are four featurettes in total, plus a pop-up trivia track, original theatrical trailer and a solo Rob Reiner audio commentary which is quite somnambulent, for lack of a better word. Sheridan's frank, funny presence is missed right from the get go, as her lotioning montage was curiously directed not by Reiner, who got too nervous to handle it, but cinematographer Robert Elswit.

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