The Sure Thing (1985)
Written by Steven Bloom and Jonathan Roberts
Directed by Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner had just come off of his debut film, the hilarious This Is Spinal Tap. His next project was The Sure Thing, a teen sex comedy, seemingly very different from that first feature. Reiner decided to make it the kind of movie he was interested in and played down the bawdy elements to focus on the dynamics of the two lead characters. As a result, he made what could be considered a modern remake of the classic screwball comedy It Happened One Night, following a similar plot structure and back and forth between the leads. The Sure Thing stands out from the crowd at the time, other films more influenced by Porky’s or John Hughes’ high school work. The Sure Thing feels like a classic movie, a connecting thread to the films of the 1930s and 40s.
Walter Gibson (John Cusack) is off to college in New England, envying his friend Lance (Anthony Edwards), who is partying at UCLA. Walter tries to make it with girls but keeps getting rejected. His most recent failure comes when he attempts to hit things off with Alison (Daphne Zuniga), a very serious scholar who doesn’t have time for Walt’s silliness. His luck seems to change around Winter Break when Lance tells him there’s a girl in California who is a “sure thing” and wants to meet Walt. He finds a campus ride share headed that way, but Alison is making the same trip in the same car. The two begin a cross country bickering that gets them kicked out and having hitch the rest of the way. But as they get to know each other better, they start to develop feelings which lead to more trouble.
What makes everything work in The Sure Thing is the chemistry between Cusack and Zuniga. These two actors inhabit their characters so completely so that when they clash, it feels completely organic. Is it realistic that people so different would end up as a couple? Probably not, but these clashes are the things great cinema is made of. In my recent Moonlighting retrospectives, I’ve talked about how powerful the fighting couple with sexual tension can be as a storytelling device. The Sure Thing ends at the perfect moment when the walls have come down, and the tension is satisfied. Moonlighting had to keep pumping out episodes, which is why this concept is a much better film structure than long-form one.
This isn’t a terribly complex movie, and the intended audience is teenagers out for a popcorn flick, but it is smart enough that it’s the type of film you want young people to see. The core theme is learning to accept unexpected things in life and not tie yourself to preconceived plans. Both characters think they know what they want and how to get it, but through a struggle come to terms with the fact that life can’t be so shaped and formed. There are annoying 1980s sexist tropes in the story, likely something Reiner couldn’t control at the time, objectifying the “sure thing” in Walt’s daydreams, but I think the director does his best to keep the emphasis off that content.
I loved how sex was handled in the film. It’s something that drives Walt, and we eventually learn Alison wants it to. However, they are very awkward and nervous about, which is such a realistic portrayal. Often, movies of this time gave the false perception of teenagers being horny and having sexual prowess. In real life, teenagers are frightened a little out of fear of performing poorly, not knowing what to do, or just from all of the societal pressure around the act. Insecurity is one of the most prevalent feelings adolescents experience. The Sure Thing does have its flaws, but it is such a standout from the teen pics of its time and is a movie well worth picking up and viewing now.