Welcome to 80s Bits, the new weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
After playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic on Archie Bunker’s All in the Family for several years, Rob Reiner made his directorial debut with the now-classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, in which he demonstrated that his flair for comedy and knowledge of the music scene could be combined into one brilliant whole. Reiner would of course go on to direct classic back-t0-back hits of Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and A Few Good Men, but he had to first prove that he could make a narrative feature. The Sure Thing is an often overlooked classic that Michael Dare of the LA Weekly said “gets my unapologetic nomination for greatest film ever made”.
High schooler senior Walter Gibson (John Cusack) and his best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards) are about to start college, but Gibson is doubting his sway with women. While Lance jets off to sunny babe-filled California, Gibson continues to strike out at his New England college. His attempts to seduce the uptight Allison (Daphne Zuniga) go awry when he tries to trick her into tutoring him, and this only results in pushing her further away. So Gibson resolves to head out to meet Lance on the promise of a “sure thing” (Nicollette Sheriden), hitching a ride with the upbeat couple Gary Cooper (Tim Robbins) and Mary Ann Webster (Lisa Jane Persky). If their singing wasn’t bad enough there’s another problem: Allison is the other passenger in the car, and it’s a long trip to California.
The steady flow of rom-coms that emerge every year have dulled our sense to the truly romantic, so it is always refreshing to revisit something that may follow the same predictable conventions, but have all the energy and audacity of a director who hadn’t yet been tainted by them. Emerging from a landscape that saw the teen market in terms of “outrageous” sex comedies of the Porkys variety, as Roger Ebert remarked at the time, it us refreshing to see an old-fashioned romantic film in this vein. Indeed, it is almost a twin to the Academy Award-winning Frank Capra film, It Happened One Night. While it would be silly to suggest that they should sit next to each other in the canon, there are many parallels to be had between the films. Apart from the central road trip at the core, both films tap into the zeitgeist of their respective eras, with Capra’s antidote to the Depression giving way to the hedonism of the mid-1980s, just prior to their own Wall Street crash. More to the point, both films are about two people falling in undeniable and genuine love.
John Cusack had been stuck in a series of teen movies at this stage in his career, before Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… would allow him to break out in more varied roles in the 1990s and beyond. Yet in many ways it is with The Sure Thing that Cusack broke out of his former standard teen roles and was allowed to create a character with something other than a singular dimension. Equal parts unhinged and goofily lovable, Cusack’s character is perhaps the earlier incarnation of his much later Hot Tub Time Machine persona. Similarly, Zuniga would go on to become a household name in Melrose Place (by way of Princess Vespa in Spaceballs), she too is relishing in the chance to escape from the likes of The Dorm That Dripped Blood and teen-drama Vision Quest.