Thursday, October 13, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Sure Thing (1985)


John Cusack
Daphne Zuniga
Anthony Edwards
Tim Robbins
Lisa Jane Persky
Nicollette Sheridan
Viveca Lindfors
Boyd Gaines

Directed by
Rob Reiner

“It could be tonight,' he thought as he stood in the corner, pretending to have a good time. He would meet her tonight. All his young life, he had dreamed of a girl like this. 5'6, silky hair, trim, nubile body that really knew how to move. And soft, deeply tanned skin. Now as for personality traits, she needed only one. She had to love sex and all the time. To arrive at this moment, he had traveled vast distances enduring many hardships. Abject poverty, starvation, show tunes, you name it. From across the room, he saw her. She was perfect. He knew almost nothing about her and she didn't know much more about him. It was exactly how it was supposed to be. He brought her to his room. The lights were soft, the moment was right.”

Okay guys, you can put your tongue back in your mouth and quit drooling. Gals, don’t judge this book by it’s cover. The above passage takes place near the end of Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing but it perfectly encapsulates what this film is about.   Still it’s like putting the cart before the horse.

John Cusack has been one of the most under appreciated actors in American Cinema. Ask any person to make a list of the best actors in the past twenty or so years, and his name is seldom if ever mentioned. I have yet to see him give a really bad performance in any film he has starred in, no matter how dull, lame, or stupefying the material may have been. That being said, The Sure Thing is neither dull or lame, and certainly not stupefying.  As romantic comedies go, it’s a pure delight.

Like many American males in high school, Walter "Gib" Gibson (John Cusack) rates his success not by how he does on the honor roll but by how many girls he's had sex with. Alas, after a productive sophomore and junior year, his senior year in High School has been a vast and barren wasteland. He does have a pick up line that he uses on occasion:

“Consider outer space. You know, from the time of the first NASA mission, it became evident that being in space has a profound effect on the human psyche. You know, during the first Gemini mission, some thought was actually given to the notion of sending up a man and a woman... together.  A cosmic 'Adam and Eve,' if you will.  Bound together in a highly sophisticated nerve center, at the head of the largest, most powerful rocket, yet known, it's giant thrusters blasting them into the dark void, as they hurtle towards their final destination: the gushing wellspring of life itself.  How would you like to have a sexual encounter so intense it could conceivably change your political views?”

You can almost hear the retort from coast to coast: How would you like to get slapped in the mouth?  It’s like the old joke where the first guy walks up to these girls and asks, “you wanna screw?” The second guy tells him, “I bet you get slapped a lot.” And the first guy replies, “yes I do, but I get screwed a lot as well.” Gib would probably have better luck by just going ahead anddispensing with the Star Trek prologue.  But his best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards) is sympathetic towards his plight.

Lance: Hey what is this, Lonely Man Sitting on a Hill, huh?
Gib: It’s over, Lance. It’s gone, I’ve lost it. High School. I started off so hot. Sophomore year: 2 Times. Junior year was excellent: 4 times. And not all with the same girl. Senior year looked like the best. The first day of classes, then nothing.
Lance: What do you mean nothing your Senior year? What about that time with Barbara Devillebis in the high-jump pit. Huh?
Gib: That was you.
Lance: Oh yeah.
Gib: I just can’t motivate myself the way I used to. Maybe I’m past my prime.
Lance: Hey, it’s not you! It’s these high school girls here. They’re simple. They’re never gonna stimulate a complex guy like you.
Gib: Maybe you’re right.
Lance: Of course I’m right. Anyways, after tonight you’ll never have to deal with these simple high school girls again.
Gib: But won’t these same girls be in college?
Lance: Yeah. But it’ll be different.
Gib: Why?
Lance: Because they’ll be college girls.

Lance is headed out to the sun, surf, and excitement of Southern California while Gib is headed to an unnamed Ivy League School in New England to get what he calls a real education.

Gib: I’m gonna miss you Lance.
Lance: It’s your own fault you know, you could be coming out to California with me.
Yeah, right. Get a totally bitchin education out there dude. California! You could be coming to New England with me, you know.
Lance: Are you crazy? The Ivy League stinks man. All they got there are those ugly intellectual girls, with band-aids on their knees from playing the cello. No, thank you!
Gib: I’m really gonna miss you, Lance.

In his freshman year of college, things are downright bleak. He is unable to connect with the life style of the East Coast College Girls.

As Gib explains it, “All they want to do is stay indoors, smoke cigarettes and relate. I don’t like them.”

It seems as if everybody except Gib, including Gib's chunky roommate Jimbo (Joshua Cadman), is having sex with someone, leaving Gib out in the cold. Still, Gib writes old pal Lance a letter, initially painting a rosy picture of his life in the East, then finishing it off with a flourish:

P.S. All of the above is bullshit. I’m floundering in a sea of confusion, and total despair. But knock on wood, I still have my health.

There is hope for Gib, but not much. Sitting next to him in English class is attractive clean cut, girl next door type, Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga). It’s obvious he’s attracted to her, although we’re never really sure why because clearly Alison is certainly not Gib’s type.  Well, she is female and she does talk in complete sentences so that much at least fits Gib’s low standards.  But Gib’s foot in mouth disease continues unabated.

“You sure do take a lot of notes,” he tells her in one class.  To which she promptly gives him the old “Go fornicate yourself” look.  A girl like Alison would never ever use the word fuck.  They just think it.   You kind of have to imagine your own thought bubble.

Alison is everything that Gib is not. She’s an uptight ultra conservative straight A student, who does nothing without first jotting down a notation in her schedule book. Her clothes are always neat, pressed, and matched perfectly. There is nary a hair out of place. Alison’s most memorable life experience is the fact that she passed out in Elvis’s bedroom while touring Graceland and once gave her brother a bloody nose.

The chasm separating Gib and Alison is never more obvious then when Professor Taub (Viveca Lindfors) comments on their essays.

Professor Taub (to Gib while holding his essay): I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your paper.
Gib: You did?
Taub: Yeah. I don’t remember the last time that I have seen this much detail expressed on “How to Eat Pizza Without Burning the Roof of Your Mouth.” Unfortunately, whatever whimsical qualities that your paper evokes are obscured in a morass of marginal grammar, creative spelling, I believe sausage stain.
Gib: Pepperoni
Taub: Clean it up Gibson.

On the other hand, Alison’s paper is clean, neat, clear, succinct and to the point.  But it has its own problems as well.

Taub: Miss Bradbury, you on the other hand, you express your ideas very clearly.
Alison: Thank you.
Taub: Except that your paper is, well, it’s dry. There’s not enough of you coming through. Loosen up, Alison. Have some fun! Yes, sleep when you feel like it, not when you think you should, eat food that is bad for you at least once in a while. Uh.. have conversations with people whose cloths are not color coordinated. Make love in a hammock! Life is the ultimate experience. Now you have to experience it, in order to write about it. (Alison raises her hand)
Yes, Alison?
Alison (still taking notes): What did you say after hammock?

If I would have had a few more teachers like Ms. Taub when I was in school, I’d be breezing through these reviews instead of squeezing every little syllable out of my meat grinder of a brain.  I mean, how could you dare to disappoint a teacher that tells you to make love in a hammock?

Anyway, Gib is not easily deterred. Hoping Alison will take pity on him, he uses his English struggles to prey on her good nature while she is taking a swim: 

“I’m flunking English. I was wondering if maybe you could help me out. If I flunk English, I’m out of here. Kiss College Goodbye. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll probably go home. Gee Dad will be pissed off, mom will be heartbroken. If I play my cards right, I get maybe a six-months grace period and then I got to get a job, and you know what that means. That’s right, they start me off at the drive-up window and I gradually work may way up from shakes to burgers and then, one day my lucky break comes. The French Fry guy dies and they offer me the job. But the day I have to start some men come by in a black Lincoln Continental and tell me I can make a quick $300 just for driving a van back from Mexico. When I get out of jail I’m 36 years old, living in a flophouse, no job, no home, no upward mobility, very few teeth. 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!”

A speech that is punctuated with Gib stumbling backwards into the pool and Alison showing how much she really cares by swimming around him. It is only when a waterlogged Gib camps out on the steps that she finally relents and offers to tutor him, scheduling Gib for 8:00 and writing it in her daily planner.

And although an unsuspecting Alison sees her appointment with Gib as a tutoring session, Gib has other ideas, and picks up a few pointers from his more sexually active roommate:

Jimbo: It’s not what you say that counts but how you say it. Use sincerity. It’s the best technique.
Jimbo: Come here. (Grabs Gib and pulls him over to the bed, sitting him on it. Then gazes into his eyes)
You know, I’ve never met anyone like you before. Usually when I meet someone knew I feel awkward and shy. But with you it’s different. I can talk to you. You know what I’m thinking without my having to explain it to you in fancy terms. We speak each other’s unspoken language fluently. I love you.
Oh Jimbo, that is the most enormous pile of horseshit I’ve ever heard in my life.

And if Gib’s quest to conquer Alison wasn’t difficult enough, there is one more impediment. Alison has a fiancé that is going to school at UCLA. But if it’s an obstacle the one track mind Gib chooses to ignore it. And having had enough of English Literature for one day, Gib manages to get a reluctant Alison to follow him to the roof of the library.

Once on the roof, Gib begins pointing out the constellations to Alison and for the first time she really seems interested. But whereas his interest is in astronomy, her’s is in mythology. So I suppose you would call that finding uncommon common ground, but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?

Now, I’m not sure how Gib got into an Ivy league school, but when things are going well between you and your date, one doesn’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that one thing you don’t do is use a bullshit line on her, especially a bullshit line that you yourself described as being the “most enormous pile of horsehsit you’ve ever heard in your life”  less than a couple of hours earlier.

But Gib’s problem is not obstinate ignorance. It’s painfully obvious that he doesn’t know how to express his real feelings about anything or anyone, unless he’s putting it on an English Literature assignment. And Alison lets him know what she thinks of his pick up line by shoving him to the ground and giving Gib a swift kick to finish him off and be rid of him permanently.

Later, on the way to Ms. Taub’s English class, Gib apologizes profusely, and this time, since he really is being sincere, Alison forgives him. Unfortunately, the fates are out to do Gib in again, and Ms. Taub picks up Gib’s paper to read. That would be fine except the paper is actually one that belongs to his roommate Jimbo, and is a letter to Penthouse magazine bragging about his sexual exploits.

Needless to say, writing an essay about your “ten inches of man meat” after having just convinced Alison that the guy on the roof wasn’t the real you, does not go over too well, and in real life, that would be that. But in romantic comedy movie life things are just getting started.

Having given up on Alison, Gib’s best friend Lance comes to his rescue. He has already sent Gib a picture of a beautiful young girl in a skimpy bikini, and calls Gib on the phone on the phone to fill in the details:

Lance: There’s a certain someone I want you to meet.
Gib: Forget it.
She’s a very special person.
I can’t deal with striking out on both coasts.
You’re not gonna strike out. She was just released from parochial school. She’s in her experimental phase.
Gib: Will you forget it Lance.
She loves sex.
What does she look like?
You remember that last snapshot I sent you? The blonde in the string bikini? Get it.
Gib: I can’t right now.
Lance: That’s an order Private Gibson. (Gib runs into his room, past Jimbo and his girlfriend who in the throes of passion are oblivious to him, and retrieves the photograph we saw earlier)
Gib (looking at the photograph):
You got it? Good, now look at it. Fixate on it. Are you fixating on it?
Gib: I’m fixating.
Are you sitting down?
Lance: She’s a sure thing, Gib. A sure thing. Now I don’t need to explain the deep significance of those words. I told her all about you and she’s dying to meet you. But you gotta drag your ass out here by the 22nd, because she’s leaving the next day for a semester at sea. So you think you can make it?

I’ll answer Lance’s question for him. Is the Pope Catholic and does a bear....never mind. But you get the point.

Not one to be deterred, Gib catches a shared ride with another couple Mary Ann Webster (Lisa Jane Persky) and Gary (but not the Gary Cooper that’s dead) Cooper (Tim Robbins), who have advertised for companions to help defray the costs of a trip to the west coast for Christmas.

And once in the car, Gib finds that there is one other passenger who has taken them up on their offer. If you guessed Alison, you win the prize. So while Gib is headed out to L.A. to get laid, Alison is as well, in a manner of speaking. She’s going to meet her fiancé Jason (Boyd Gaines) at UCLA. And when Gib gets in the car she’s not a happy camper.


I don’t know if you’ve ever made a long long trip across country by automobile or of any other long distance for that matter. I’ve taken a few long trips, and at least one of them turned out to be the trip from hell. And I’ll put my trip from hell up against anybody’s. So I can sympathize, even with the Gary Cooper that’s not dead.  There are far far worse things that can happen to you other than having to sing a few stanzas of 76 Trombones.  Me? I’m partial to hits from the sixties myself, seeing as how when I was growing up I was constantly serenaded by my five sisters every time we got into a car together for a family outing.

It goes without saying that this excursion to the Pacific Ocean will not go well. Gibb and Alison spend most of their time nitpicking, criticizing, and just flat out hating one another. Gary (but not the Gary Cooper that’s dead) Cooper and Mary Ann just want everybody to get along and sing their show tunes. There’s nothing like a rousing rendition of “Aquarius” in the confines of an automobile. It isn’t long before Gib and Alison’s bickering ends up getting under the skin of Gary (but not the Gary Cooper that’s dead) Cooper and Mary Ann, especially when  our quarrelsome duet of Gib and Alison are directly responsible for the Gary Cooper that’s not dead getting pulled over and ticketed by the cops.

But as good as The Sure Thing is before it even hits the road, that’s how much better it is once those wheels start rolling towards Malibu.  In fact, before that point the film has just started which is why I’m leaving it up to you to see how this baby drives down that long lonesome highway.

You don’t have to have a Masters Degree in Romantic Comedies 101 to know where this is all going to end up. But with these kinds of films, getting there is often 90 percent or more of the fun. And The Sure Thing is a blast.

Director Rob Reiner and writers Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts take their film where other directors might be tempted to end theirs.  Just when we think Gib and Alison are on the road to romantic bliss, they throw another obstacle in their path, pushing them even further apart than they were before.  It is only when fate and circumstances intervene they have no choice but to try and get along, that they begin to see each other for who they really are.

What I particularly liked about The Sure Thing is that on this trip we see what Alison and Gib can’t see.  It is that he begins to become just a little more like her, and she in turns begins to loosen up and enjoy life, thus taking on some of Gib’s traits. We notice it long before Gib and Alison do. In fact, we actually see it even earlier when Gib apologizes for the incident on the library rooftop. And the screenwriters and Reiner were smart enough to introduce these changes subtly instead of hitting you over the head with them suddenly and having your characters do a 180 degree about face for no particular reason except that it’s time for the movie to end.

When The Sure Thing was released, John Cusack did not have a huge list of movie credits. He had been in Sixteen Candles, and although his turn there as Bryce was hilarious, it was not one where you would say, “Who was that fine actor that played Farmer Ted’s friend?”  The Sure Thing was the first time he had to carry a film, and was one that made many such as myself take notice that there was more to this guy then we had seen previously. He would follow The Sure Thing up with Better Off Dead, a film that has been widely panned by most critics, but is one that I could make a good case for being at least worth watching. Yeah, a review of that film is somewhere in the back of my mind gestating. A couple of years later, when he played Harry in The Journey of Natty Gann, Cusack showed that he wasn’t limited to doing comedic roles.  And since then, he may very well have been the busiest actor in Hollywood.

Daphne Zuniga’s next big role would be in Mel Brook’s Spaceballs as Princess Vespa, a hilarious satirical slant on Princess Leia of Star Wars. And although I really liked her in Gross Anatomy, she would go on to mostly make her mark in televison starring in shows such as Melrose Place and One Tree Hill.

What really makes this film work is the final twenty minutes or so. You can have the best journey possible but if it all flat lines at the end it was a wasted trip. And I have to say, it’s the best ending possible for a film like this, meaning you may think you know how it’s all going to end, but you don’t really.  It’s where smart writing revisits earlier scenes for the big payoff, thus giving more relevance to the fact that what goes around comes around and sometimes it’s not so bad after all.  And that alone would be enough for me to praise any film, but there very are few romantic comedies that gets everything exactly right. The Sure Thing is about as sure a thing as one can get in this genre, and for that reason alone I have no choice but to render my grade of an A. And if they were all as good as this, I’d never complain.

Poor quality on this trailer of The Sure Thing. But it’s all I could find.

You can view more of The Sure Thing by using the clips at the bottom  of the video screen once you watch the trailer.

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