Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Sure Thing (Embassy Pictures, Monument Pictures, MGM Home Video, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie from the backlog of DVD’s that turned out to be quite charming: The Sure Thing, which Charles had seen when it was in theatres originally in 1985 but I had never seen at all and barely heard of. It turned out to be a quite charming film that, despite the statement of one of the writers that it was based on a true story that happened to him in his own college days (he went to Brown University in New England and a friend of his from high school who’d gone to Emory near Atlanta invited him to visit on one of the school year’s break because there was a woman there who would be a “sure thing” for him to have sex with), seems to have been made out of a conscious decision by writers Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts to rework It Happened One Night as a 1980’s teen story. It starts in an unnamed New England college where Walter Gibson (John Cusack) has enrolled — much to the annoyance of his high-school buddy Lance (Anthony Edwards, who struck me as considerably sexier than Tom Cruise when I saw the two together in Top Gun and struck me as sexier than Cusack here — I remember how shocked I was to see him over a decade later on the TV show E.R. when he was older, heftier and had virtually no hair left), who went to UCLA for the sun, beaches and hot babes. (This is not the sort of movie you want to watch if you want to see a sympathetic portrayal of straight men.) 

At the New England college he’s in an English class taught by Professor Taub (Swedish-born actress Viveca Lindfors, who was imported to the U.S. by Warner Bros. in 1947 and given the female lead in The Adventures of Don Juan — so everyone else in this cast is one degree of separation from Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, who appeared with Lindfors in the heavy-breathing melodrama Night Unto Night in 1949). Walter, who’s universally nicknamed “Gib,” has turned in a paper on pizza which the professor rejects as overwritten and banal (also badly punctuated and spelled), while she denounces the paper submitted by female student Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) as well written but cold. Once we see the two inhabiting the same classroom we know that sooner or later their opposites are going to attract and they’re going to end up together, but it’s going to take them the rest of the movie to realize they belong together. After Gib tries to get Alison to tutor him in English — an embarrassing event in which they end up in an unauthorized place on the roof of one of the campus buildings, Gib makes a pass at her and Alison nearly knocks him off the roof — the two decide to set out for California, she to reunite with her boyfriend Jason (Boyd Gaines) and he to hook up with the “sure thing” his friend Lance has promised him, a young woman who’s just broken free of a strict upbringing and as part of that liberation process is committed to having sex with a man who’s 3,000 miles away and whom she’s never met. (John Cusack was only 17 when he made the movie and in order to be allowed to use him, screenwriter Bloom had to seek Cusack’s legal emancipation and become his official guardian for the duration of the shoot.) They use the campus’s “Ride Board” to hook up with couple Gary Cooper (Tim Robbins) and Mary Anne Webster (Lisa Jane Persky), who announce they’re going to sing show tunes all the way across country and start pouting when Gib and Alison won’t join them in pieces like “Aquarius” from Hair and the 1920’s song “Button Up Your Overcoat.” (They sound as eclectic in their musical tastes as I do.) 

Then someone moons their car and Alison responds by baring her chest and showing off her breasts (though director Rob Reiner — an interesting choice for this film because he’s a great actor’s director and brings a rather far-fetched tale the needed doses of humanity and credibility — carefully frames the scene so we don’t actually see anything, which was probably done to preserve the film’s PG-13 rating but which is also a nice piece of subtlety evoking the 1930’s roots of this story), which leads a cop to stop Cooper and Webster and issue Cooper a ticket —and Cooper to throw Gib and Alison out of his car. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, they decide to hitchhike — though the first person who picks Alison up is a trucker who all too predictably attempts to rape her. Gib hid out in the back of the truck and pops up at the opportune moment to save her by pretending to be crazier than the driver. The two end up stranded in a rainstorm; they dash for an old shed but its roof has caved in so it doesn’t offer them any more shelter than the open outdoors. Then they spot a trailer, only Gib can’t figure out how to break into it. “I have a credit card,” Alison says. “A credit card only works on a totally different kind of lock than this,” says Gib. “You don’t understand. I have a credit card,” Alison says. Then she thinks twice and tells Gib it’s a gift from her dad, who told her only to use it in an emergency. With both of then being drenched by torrential rains, Gib says, “Well, maybe one will come up.” In the very next shot, we see Gib and Alison having a dinner at a fancy restaurant inside a nice hotel, with both themselves and their clothes perfectly dry. Eventually a truck driver comes along and offers them a ride to California, only when Alison meets Jason she decides he’s unbearably boring and breaks up with him (a scene which reminded me of Hedy Lamarr’s careful preparations for sexual bliss in the 1933 film Ecstasy, only to find that her husband — a much older man, a widower, with whom her parents set her up — just putters along in the bathroom, carefully brushing his teeth and revealing himself utterly uninterested in a hot sexual night with his new young bride). 

Gib meets the Sure Thing (Nicollette Sheridan in her first film) but simply isn’t interested in her as a person — he goes through the motions as far as kissing her but then breaks it off — and after a party scene in which Alison sees Gib with the Sure Thing and Gib sees Alison with Jason, the film then cuts back to the New England university, in which Professor Taub reads Gib’s paper on his “sure thing” experience to the rest of the class, Alison realizes Gib didn’t have sex with the Sure Thing, and the two of them finally hook up. The Sure Thing scores precisely because of its reticence — it was billed as a teen sex comedy but is really more than that, a marvelous romantic movie in the tradition of Capra, Robert Riskin (who wrote most of Capra’s most famous films) and Preston Sturges, all of whom were cited by the writers in the making-of featurette, the sort of new (or at least relatively new) movie I like because it reminds me of the things I like about the films of Hollywood’s classic era. One amusing thing about the film is how dated it is in terms of how the young people in it keep track of their schedules: Alison has a written calendar (today she’d keep her schedule on her smartphone) and when Gib’s college roommate (the running joke around his character is he’s less conventionally attractive than Gib but he has much better luck with women — he and Gib have made an arrangement by which one will vacate the room while the other is in there with a woman, but the roommate really doesn’t have to worry about Gib ever asking him to reciprocate) is having sex Gib has to take a phone call at the end of a long cord in the hallway. (Later on Lance, Gib’s friend in California, shows off his cordless phone as the acme of high-tech communications technology.) Charles was amused by that and also a brief sequence featuring a pay phone!  

The Sure Thing isn’t a deathless masterpiece, but it is a quite charming and lovable movie, well directed and nicely acted, especially by the two leads — Cusack is attractive but not so attractive we have a hard time believing the script’s assertion that he can’t find a girlfriend or even a sex partner without having to travel all the way across America; and Zuniga is just right as the Hitchcock-style woman with a forbidding exterior and inside desires well hidden even from herself. It’s the sort of film that looks like it was directed by an actor, not especially atmospheric but blessed with quiet, understated performances by the cast members (actor-directors generally aren’t big on visual atmosphere, though Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood are the actor-directors who disprove that rule; what actor-directors are best at is getting these kinds of understated performances out of their casts — and that seems to hold true even for actor-directors like Stroheim and Welles who were unmitigated hams as actors) and a truly charming script (which, according to the writers, director Reiner and the stars actually added to during the shoot) that tells a nice film story and tells it effectively. An unexpected little gem!