The Sure Thing (1985)

12 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Rob Reiner’s “The Sure Thing” could have been one of those dumb teenage sex comedies of the 1980s, and for those who were tired of that “genre,” the opening scenes probably turned them off immediately. You’d think you could tell from the first five or ten minutes what was going to happen in this movie, but you’d be wrong, and that’s how the movie tricks you. Rather than going along the lines of the distasteful “Porky’s,” “The Sure Thing” is sweeter and more mature in tone than one might expect.

Surely enough, “The Sure Thing” starts offputtingly. For one thing, the opening credits (which are written in that cheesy, pink-colored cursive font you see in most 80s teen comedies) are played over a sequence in which the title character—a blonde bombshell in a bikini—sits on a California beach and rubs lotion all over herself. Very appealing to look at, I have to say. But there are many other teenage movies that start out this way. Then, we meet our main character—a recent high school graduate named Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack) trying unsuccessfully to pick up girls at a party, and then chatting with his buddy Lance (Anthony Edwards) who keeps telling him to “get back out there” and get laid. Lance is just as annoying as any other “supportive-sexist-best-friend” character you see in this kind of movie—we’ve seen this guy before. He’s boring.

In fact, we’ve seen this opening before. Any groaner will tell you that “The Sure Thing” is going to be just another one of those sleazy teen sex romps. But this is a most pleasant surprise—instead of resorting to that sort of sleaziness that made movies such as “Porky’s” and “Losin’ It” box-office hits at the time, “The Sure Thing” turns out to be a gentle love story that begins as Gib attends an Eastern college and meets Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) in his English class. He’s attracted to her, and he uses unusual pickup tactics to ask her out. But Alison is not one of your standard dumb movie broads—she’s an intelligent woman (who happens to be good-looking). On their date together, just when the two start to really hit it off, Gib ultimately winds up acting like a total jerk.

Lance invites Gib to spend Christmas vacation in Los Angeles, where a “sure thing” (the blonde at the beginning) is waiting for him—no strings attached, no guilt involved. He plans to get there, from New England to Los Angeles, any way he can. So, he goes to a bulletin board offering rides, and gets a ride with a friendly, showtunes-crooning couple (Lisa Jane Persky and Tim Robbins), but guess who’s also along for a ride to L.A. That’s right—it’s Alison. She’s on her way to spend the holidays with her preppy boyfriend (Boyd Gaines). From here, it’s a combination of a road movie, a comedy, and a romance.

“The Sure Thing” follows a basic Hollywood three-act structure. The first act introduces the characters at the northeastern university; the second act, the most lengthy section of the movie, in which they travel to California while running into some trouble and hitching rides, while surely becoming attracted to each other; and then the final act, in which they reach their destination and ask themselves if they’re there with the right person. You can guess the outcome of the story, but that’s not the point of the movie. What really counts about “The Sure Thing” is that there is genuine chemistry between the two leads, as every good romantic comedy should have. For us to buy the story, we have to buy the attraction between the two. There is conflict between the two at first, but as they get to know one another, they start to really like one another. Sure, they’re opposites, and they’re going to California for another person. But when has that ever stopped true love? We like Gib and Alison—we care about them and we root for them to end up together. And that’s a compliment to the script and a key tribute to John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, who are both gifted, charismatic, and convincing when playing the old reliable “love/hate” interaction.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Gib and Alison share a bed together. Alison is the first to awaken in the morning, and she notices that Gib has his arm wrapped around her. How does she react? She smiles and keeps lying there. That’s a genuinely sweet moment and it becomes an important turning point in Gib and Alison’s relationship.

And “The Sure Thing” does what every romantic comedy should do once they’ve gotten the sweet elements out of the way—provide the comedy. And surely enough, there are many comedic moments in this movie that work greatly. These scenes include—Gib’s introduction to the “sincerity lie” by his college roommate (Joshua Cadman); a predictable scene involving Alison hitching a ride with a redneck that suddenly becomes unpredictable once Gib comes to her rescue in a hilarious way; a scene in which Gib teaches Alison to “shotgun beer”; and more. More importantly, the comedy comes from the character’s behavior and the situations they go through.

More pleasantly, “The Sure Thing” is not about the “sure thing” (and there’s never any “meanwhile in California” scenes to interrupt the road trip). It’s about this young man falling genuinely in love. When Gib and Alison finally arrive in L.A., and end up at the same party, Gib is starting to feel as if he’s there for the wrong person. Little does he know that Alison feels the same way—she feels no excitement with her boring, middle-class boyfriend.  “The Sure Thing” has something to say about sex and love, and it’s one of those rare teen-comedies in the ‘80s in which sex and love are two completely different things. (So many others at the time pretended they were one and the same.) With realistic teenage characters, a funny script, and a tenderness to the story, “The Sure Thing” is a treasure in the teenage romantic-comedy genre.

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