Not Just Another '80s Teen Movie
After high school, Walter "Gib" Gibson (John Cusack, Say Anything) and his best friend, Lance (Anthony Edwards, ER), go their separate ways. Gib heads to college on the East coast, while Lance heads out to sunny southern California. As first semester final exams approach, it's clear Lance has made the better decision, basking poolside among luscious college women while Gib slogs through classes, bundled against the frigid Northeast winter. To cheer up his best friend, Lance lures Gib to California with the promise of a bikini-clad Sure Thing (Nicolette Sheridan, Knots Landing), a beautiful young woman willing to put out.
Gib sets out on a cross-country road trip to meet his Sure Thing, but chance gives him a partner on his journey: Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga, Melrose Place), a straight-laced classmate on her way to California to meet with her martinet fiancé (Boyd Gaines, Porky's). The odd couple suffer hardships including the cloying college couple with whom they first hitch a ride (Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky), a smarmy and lecherous truck driver, inclement weather, and insufficient funds. But by the time they reach their destination, Alison is left questioning the efficacy of a lifetime with her stodgy boyfriend, and Gib's no longer sure his Sure Thing is the girl he really wants.
The Sure Thing is director Rob Reiner's second feature film, shot just after his brilliant debut, This Is Spinal Tap, and before his keenly observed bildungsroman, Stand By Me. It's a teen comedy only in the sense that it's a comedy whose lead characters happen to be at the tail end of their teenage years. Otherwise, it has little in common with the ensemble comedies that dominated the teen movie scene beginning in 1982 with the release of Porky's, The Last American Virgin, and most notably Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and continuing throughout the decade with films like Valley Girl (1983), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). However, as with the best of the '80s teen genre (read: Fast Times and The Breakfast Club), The Sure Thing owes its artistic success to its director's refusal to patronize his young characters, instead treating them with the same respect he would adult players.
Despite the movie's zany teen premise, it rarely drifts into the sort of broad comedy one associates with the genre, playing instead as a sort of homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s. Its road trip pairing of male and female leads nearly allergic to one another plays, at times, like a direct remake of Frank Capra's Academy Award behemoth, It Happened One Night (whenever the teens hitch a ride, I half-expect Zuniga to stop a truck by lifting her pant leg to show a little gam). And the evolving relationship between the leads is reminiscent of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday: Gib may be a self-centered, irreverent, and irresponsible man-boy, but he's also capable of teaching Alison a little something about living authentically.
Part of the fun of '80s teen movies is seeing now famous actors at the beginning of their careers. The Sure Thing offers up both Anthony Edwards and Tim Robbins (Bull Durham). Edwards is fine in what is ostensibly the wacky best friend role, bringing affability to a part that could easily have been grating in lesser hands. But among the supporting roles, it's Robbins' cameo that stands out. He makes the most of his turn as the cheery, show tune-singing college square, Gary Cooper ("Not the dead one"), horrified by Gib's and Alison's constant bickering (just the fact his socks match his jacket lining cracks me up each time I watch the film).
It's the 17-year-old John Cusack who is the film's true revelation, of course. Reiner talks ad nauseam in the commentary track on the DVD about how he wanted to keep the movie grounded in reality, avoiding the sort of grotesquerie exemplified in lesser teen films of the time. Occupying the central comic role in the film, it fell largely on Cusack to deliver the right tone. This was his first lead role in a film (he'd had small parts in both Class (1983) and Sixteen Candles), yet the comic timing and everyman charm for which he's become famous appear nearly fully-formed. If the movie isn't as well-remembered as many of its contemporaries, it's because the Walter Gibson on the page isn't quite keenly enough observed to take hold of our collective conscious and become the representative of a generation. Cusack elevates the character, but can't make him indelible (he'd get the quality material he needed to make a lasting impression four years later with the teen romantic lead to end all teen romantic leads, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything). Still, Cusack's charming performance in The Sure Thing, and the picture's unflinching earnestness, make it well worth 95 minutes of your time.
MGM has given The Sure Thing a surprisingly deluxe treatment in this Special Edition DVD release (considering its relatively low profile). Presented on a DVD-14 (a dual-sided disc with one side dual-layered and the other single-layered), it's far from a barebones release. The dual-layered side of the disc contains the film in both widescreen anamorphic and open matte full screen, with three different sound options (5.1 Surround in English, or 2.0 mono in either English or French). The image quality is mostly sharp and solid with colors vibrant compared to the way you may have seen the flick on either broadcast television or VHS. Isolated shots show a fair amount of grain and some exceedingly minor source damage, but none of it is worth complaining about. MGM appears to be following the Criterion Collection's aesthetic for digital transfers, erring on the side of minor source grain over abundant edge enhancement. The results in this case occasionally betray the film's age and budget, but also imbue it with a natural look. It's a solid job.
Extras on the movie side of the disc include a feature-length audio commentary by Rob Reiner that is warm and funny, as well as a trivia track in the style of VH1 Pop-Up Video. Flip the disc over and you've got a 26-minute retrospective making-of documentary produced for this DVD release, along with three additional five- to nine-minute featurettes focused on the casting, costume design, and original story treatment of the film. There are also four easy-to-find Easter eggs containing additional Nicolette Sheridan interview footage. Again, the treatment is surprisingly elaborate and much appreciated: The Sure Thing may not be the most famous film of its era, but those who love it, love it with a fanaticism deserving of a few quality supplements.
If you're a fan of The Sure Thing, you're sure to be pleased with this Special Edition release. If you've never seen the movie before, this DVD is by far the best way to introduce yourself: it's a sure thing.
Court's in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Rob Reiner
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