Sure Thing, The (United States, 1985)

June 06, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sure Thing, The Poster

When The Sure Thing was released in 1985, it was out of step with the times. Teen comedies in those years were saturated with sex and broad humor. Romance and realism (even to a modest degree) were undesirable relics of a bygone era. Nevertheless, despite the cultural discontinuity, the filmmakers pressed forward, believing that there was an unsatisfied appetite for an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story where characters and relationships take precedence over pratfalls and locker room absurdity. Director Rob Reiner believed in this project, and his faith was rewarded. At the box office, The Sure Thing reaped more than four times its cost, and it became a member of the stable of early-to-mid-'80s films that found a passionate audience on home video.

The film's simple, time-tested premise of two mismatched lovers finding one another has been honed through the ages. The antecedent to which The Sure Thing most directly owes its tone and structure is Frank Capra's 1934 charmer, It Happened One Night. There's also more than a hint of Preston Sturges here. Some would argue that The Sure Thing proved that the teen romantic comedy could succeed even stripped of its most overtly sexual elements. The early films of John Hughes, which were contemporaneous with this feature, provided ample ammunition for those who defended this position.

The Sure Thing benefited from arriving in theaters during a time when the PG-13 rating, then a new category on the MPAA's scoreboard, was being applied intelligently rather than as a means to allow teenagers to see watered-down versions of R-rated motion pictures. PG-13 is the correct rating for The Sure Thing. The content is a little more racy than what one might expect from a PG movie but tame enough that there was no need to consider an R. Had The Sure Thing been released a year earlier, it might have been subject to a number of small cuts necessary to make it PG-friendly. The advent of the PG-13 classification allowed the filmmakers to tell the story the way they wanted to tell it without censorship interference.

This was the sophomore effort for director Rob Reiner and, in some ways, it represented his proving ground as a director. His debut, This Is Spinal Tap, was more of a collaborative effort, with Reiner combining his talents with those of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. With The Sure Thing, he had no such veteran co-leadership; he was on his own. The Sure Thing became the second in a string of seven consecutive good-to-great mainstream movies that Reiner directed during the mid-'80s and early '90s (the other five, in chronological order: Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men). The strength of Reiner's early work makes it difficult to explain what happened post-A Few Good Men, when quality in his films required an effort to locate. Perhaps North, known far and wide to have inspired one of Roger Ebert's most scathing reviews, dealt a deep and lasting blow to the director's psyche.

Following a brief prologue that shows protagonist Walter "Gib" Gibson (John Cusack) striking out at a high school post-graduation party (his line to a potential date: "How would you like to have a sexual encounter so intense it could conceivably change your political views?"), the setting shifts to an unnamed northeastern university. (Although the school is not identified, some location filming was done at Cornell.) There, Gib's luck with women doesn't change. He's attracted to a brainy, reserved girl named Alison (Daphne Zuniga) and concocts a scheme by which he coerces her into tutoring him, then changes the Friday night study session into something more intimate. The predictable result is disastrous and Gib has to stumble all over himself apologizing in order to persuade Alison to hold a conversation with him. With his prospects for female companionship at college looking grim, Gib is preparing to resolve himself to a life of celibacy when his high school best friend, Lance (Anthony Edwards), now matriculating at UCLA, invites him to California for Christmas. Lance has an amazing offer for Gib: a girl who's "a sure thing" (Nicollette Sheridan) - no questions, no refusals, no guilt. All he has to do is make the 3000 mile trip. No problem - there's a bulletin board offering shared rides. Gib ends up in the back seat of a car driven by a showtunes-loving couple (Tim Robbins, Lisa Jane Persky), but he's not alone. His fellow passenger is none other than Alison, who's on her way to the same destination to spend the holidays with her ultra-preppy boyfriend. Thus begins a combination road trip/romance.

The Sure Thing follows the beloved Hollywood three-act structure: the opening sequences at the northeastern university, in which the characters are introduced to each other and us; the lengthy middle section where they travel west-to-east by car, foot, and truck (with various interludes along the way); and the final chapters, which take place in California. There's nothing remarkable about The Sure Thing in either structure or intent, but it does what a good romantic comedy must do: gets viewers to care about the characters and root for them to end up together. The climax is the kiss. None of the obstacles are insurmountable and they are all well-established from the first act. Gib and Alison are polar opposites and both are going to California for another person, but when have such things been deterrents to the course of true love?

The best and worst sequences occur in close proximity near the film's midpoint. The Sure Thing's most genuinely romantic scene transpires during a thaw in Gib and Alison's relationship. She allows him to sleep in the same bed and they wake up cuddling, with his arm wrapped around her. She regains consciousness first and lies there, unmoving, with her eyes open and a smile on her lips. A little earlier, there's a protracted and rather pointless scene in which Gib wanders into a bar and spends five minutes in conversation with a couple of other customers. The scene is unremarkable in every way and I have never been able to figure out why this didn't end up on the cutting room floor.

For romantic comedies, casting isn't a critical component, it's the critical component. The role of Gib represented John Cusack's first starring opportunity, and he made the most of the chance. His combination of youthful enthusiasm, openness, and natural charisma disarm viewers and make it impossible to dislike him. Cusack was only 17 when he began filming - four years junior to his leading lady and three years younger than The Sure Thing. That gap, however, isn't noticeable. Daphne Zuniga plays wonderfully off Cusack; the two develop the classic "love/hate" interaction that has fueled thousands of stories over the centuries. Meanwhile, Nicollette Sheridan, making her feature debut, is stunning (as intended) but her nameless character turns out to have a little more substance than one might initially assume. The supporting cast is populated by some interesting names - in addition to Robbins and Edwards, there's also Viveca Lidfors as Gib and Alison's creative writing professor and Boyd Gaines (who has had an extremely successful television career as a character actor) as Jason, Alison's boyfriend.

The comedy in The Sure Thing is genial and unforced. Most of it develops organically out of the characters and their situations. It doesn't grate and it doesn't interfere with the evolution of the central relationship, and it's effective enough to provoke the occasional laugh or smile. (Don't expect to be rolling on the floor, however.) The screenplay isn't as sharp or witty as that of Reiner's best-known romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, but this is a likeable film that follows all of the necessary steps to engage an audience. It may not be a sure thing, but it's at least a pretty good bet.

Sure Thing, The (United States, 1985)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1985-03-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1