The Sure Thing is an absolutely charming romantic comedy which surprisingly owes more to 1930s comedies than it does to the seemingly interminable string of horny teenager movies which have cluttered up theaters for the past few years. Rather than dealing exclusively with overactive hormones and kneejerk defiance of authority, The Sure Thing is about love and maturing. Moreover, it is just about the only accurate picture of college life that I've seen in the movies.
The Sure Thing is about a couple of college students (both freshmen, or freshpersons, if you insist) going to an Ivy League type university in the East. He's a very typical specimen of a male college student: bright, lazy, irresponsible, probably a lot of fun to be with. She's beautiful, very intelligent, overly organized, and bit priggish (but, none the less, "OK deep down inside"). He's smitten the moment he sees her; she's decidedly unimpressed. Moreover, she already has a boyfriend, a prospective lawyer going to UCLA. As played by John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, these two have to be one of the most appealingly mismatched pairs since Clark Gable stumbled over Carol Lombard running away from Daddy.
Cusack makes some charmingly clumsy plays for her, but Zuniga takes herself far too seriously to see beyond his ineptitude, so in no time at all they aren't talking to each other. Imagine their surprise when they discover that they're sharing a ride out to the West coast over the Christmas break. She's going to visit her boyfriend, and he is going to visit the eponymous "sure thing," a tanned California beauty who, sight unseen, has decided that she wants to go to bed with him. (She just got out of a parochial school and is in her "experimental phase".) What red-blooded American boy could pass up that opportunity, particularly when his love life hasn't been going too well, anyway?
The ride is being offered by an absolutely dreadful couple, the epitome of all blind rides. Not only do they sing show tunes and play stupid games, but they sulk if their sullen passengers don't join in. Of course, Zuniga's and Cusack's constant sniping doesn't help matters, and in no time at all they find themselves dumped in the Midwest in the middle of winter, with no option but to hitchhike to California together. All of us who have spent our lives taking Hollywood 101 know what comes next, but no matter. As in almost all good Hollywood movies, the important thing isn't where the film is going, but how it gets there.
The Sure Thing gets there on wit, skilled pacing, and superb chemistry between the two leading players. It's not a film of surprises, but of skillfully played, pleasingly familiar chords. The credit can be divided up nicely between Cusack, Zuniga, screenwriters Steven Bloom and Jonathan Roberts, and director Rob Reiner. Bloom and Roberts have studied their Hollywood mythology very well; the situations aren't new, but they are tried and true winners. Their real achievement is how well they have modernized the conventions of 1930s movies to fit so well into the 1980s. A man and a woman hitchhiking together has very different connotations now than then, but, without blindly avoiding those differences, Bloom and Roberts have preserved what made the original attractive. The pair are also to be commended for a very true portrayal of college life. The level of craziness is about right, and they suggest that many college students do spend some time studying and going to classes. Games of two on two football, sneaking up to the roof of the library, writing a paper while eating a pizza: this is college the way it really is.
Reiner directs the film with a sure, steady hand, belying the fact that this is only his second film (the first being This is Spinal Tap, which was quite hilarious, in a very different way). Reiner's respect for his characters is quite refreshing. I don't think any of the other supposed college films of recent years really gave a damn about any of the characters, but Reiner cares about his kids, and he's skilled enough to make us care, too. His pacing is also quite nice. The Sure Thing never bogs down or spends too long on irrelevancies; nor does it rush us past any of its several delightful moments. My only complaint is that Reiner and the screenwriters made the Ralph Bellamy part a bit too unsympathetic. (Ralph Bellamy almost invariably played the dull suitor who loses the leading lady to Cary Grant or William Powell or Gary Cooper or James Stewart in the screwball comedies of the thirties. Howard Hawks got a lot of fun out of this in His Girl Friday, which, incidentally, is a must see whenever it shows up.) Zuniga's boyfriend is too stolid and stultifying for words. One can't see how even a straightlaced young woman would ever fall for him.
Cusack and Zuniga are perfect in their parts. Zuniga is the very epitome of a future Yuppie coed, of the subclass that takes life very, very seriously. And yet, down underneath we can always tell that there's a hidden desire to do something a little bit crazy, a desire which has been hidden even from herself. So, the question is, will she be rescued from the dull prince by the lively jester, or will she be doomed to a boring life of convention and routine? Cusack is also excellent as a young man who has almost everything a woman would want, except maturity. One of the nice points made in The Sure Thing is that, while looseness and a spirit of adventure is good, there's also something to be said for responsibility and commitment. Cusack has some things to learn, too, and the great strength of his performance is how well he shows us his maturation. Zuniga and Cusack work extremely well with each other, and it would be a great pity if they didn't make more films together.
The Sure Thing is a lovely little movie, most definitely of the type they supposedly don't make any more. It wouldn't be quite fair to stack it up against the greatest of the classic comedies of the thirties, but it's probably the closest thing I've seen from the last twenty years, much more so than What's Up Doc, and certainly far truer to their spirit than the generally dismal films of Dudley Moore. (Reviving an old joke, The Sure Thing is the picture they said couldn't be made: a romantic comedy which doesn't star Dudley Moore.) The Sure Thing is, in fact, the perfect film to go to with your unrequited love (always assuming that s/he will accompany you). Perhaps this sweet and satisfying story of two people who unexpectedly turned out to be made for each other will convince them that you're not such a hopeless case, either.
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