THE SURE THING And Why Road Trips Are Not An Adult Activity
Nowadays, John Cusack's presence in a movie is usually kind of sad - he either seems tired or annoyed to be there (check out the terrible Taken ripoff The Prince for a "fun" example - he plays one of the hero's buddies). But 30 years ago, he was hungry, and even if the humor doesn't all hold up, it's worth revisiting The Sure Thing just to recall a time when the actor was elevating material, not dragging it down even lower than it already was. And on a personal level, I enjoyed reminiscing about my own, less exciting college days, and found myself wishing I had given the movie another look during high school or even freshman year at college.
Essentially It Happened One Night re-imagined as an '80s college/sex comedy (albeit with no actual sex), Rob Reiner's followup to This Is Spinal Tap (the poster for which can be seen hanging in Cusack's dorm room) isn't particularly funny, but it coasts easily on the chemistry between the carefree Cusack and overly uptight Daphne Zuniga, and the former's pure energy that he burns off even in the throwaway scenes. After one of the many spats between the two leads, Cusack heads to a bar and starts drinking alongside two standard old-timer drunks, and it's not long before he's buying them drinks and singing Christmas tunes with them. The scene could have easily been cut entirely since it's got nothing to do with the plot, but it's got one of the film's best laughs, and it's a sheer delight to watch Cusack - only 17 at the time - genuinely engaged with the two old drunks as if they were his best pals.
These diversions aren't plentiful; most of the movie concerns the pair's attempt to get from New England to Los Angeles during Christmas break, with little time (or money) for sightseeing. Cusack is on his way to meet the title character, a "sure thing" played by Nicolette Sheridan who will sleep with him thanks to the urging of his best friend (Anthony Edwards). Some audience members might wonder why college-era John Cusack would need to travel 3000 miles to find a woman to sleep with him, but the script by Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts at least makes a half-hearted effort to explain it - he's lost his flirting mojo and is tired of taking chances on women like Zuniga's character only to get rejected. Hooking up with a woman where he doesn't have to put any effort into it seems like a perfect solution, and so he finds transportation via the school's ride sharing program. Unfortunately, Zuniga tags along in the same car (driven by a young Tim Robbins!), as she wants to see her longtime boyfriend in LA as well.
Of course, it wouldn't make much of a romantic road comedy if they were just in the backseat of a car the whole time. After being fed up with their constant bickering, Robbins throws them out of his car and leaves them stranded somewhere in the Midwest (the movie was almost entirely shot in California so the locations are a bit hard to pin down), and thus the real fun begins. Even if you've never seen a film before you can probably guess how it all plays out - circumstances force them together, resulting in a genuine bond between them, then they start to fall in love, and then precisely twenty minutes before the movie ends they have a big fight and stop speaking to each other, only to come back together in time for the final scene before credits. But like the saying goes, it's the journey, not the destination, and the forty-minute section of the film where they're Plains, Trains & Automobiles-ing their way to California is by far the best part (it takes a bit too long to get them on the road, and things are wrapped up not in CA but weeks later, when they return to school).
Watching the movie I started to really regret never taking a real road trip during college. In sophomore year a girl I liked asked me to drive her home (around eighty miles away) to visit her dad after she missed her train, and that was probably the furthest I ever drove away from school grounds (and I was so afraid of meeting her dad and thus being deemed unworthy of his only daughter that I basically just dropped her off and drove right back - John Cusack I am not). Otherwise, the first one I really took was after college was over, which meant I had a regular job, responsibilities, etc - it would've been fun, romantic potential or no, to take one just for the hell of it before all that "adult" stuff took over my life. And the film is grounded enough in reality (unlike the later Road Trip's far more ridiculous version of the "let's drive to see a girl" concept) that even when things go bad, I didn't stop feeling like I missed out on something. A traveling salesman tries to get in Zuniga's pants (this leads to one of those "What happened to THIS Cusack?" moments, as he basically scares the guy into stopping by acting like a total loon) but otherwise nothing really bad or dangerous happens to them along the way (unlike Neal Page and Del Griffith, who are nearly incinerated, frozen, etc), making it kind of appealing even in its relative low moments. Maybe it'd be fun to spend the night in some random shed because I couldn't a motel!
We've spent a lot of time talking about legendary cinematic cars this month, but not as much on the roads those cars were traveling. I've had three cars by now and took a Penske truck across country when I moved to LA, and none of them are particularly iconic even to me (well, maybe my first one, but most of my memories of it are of it breaking down), but the trips themselves - even with their strict timelines and carefully planned budgets - are all treasured memories for one reason or another, and watching this movie made me kind of bummed out I might never get to do one again someday. I guess I can channel my inner Chevy Chase and "drive instead of fly" to some theme park with my family once Will is older (and has a younger sibling to complete the homage), but since "Wally World" (Six Flags Magic Mountain) is only like a thirty-minute drive from us I guess we will have to find a different destination than the Griswolds. But with the kids and a vacation that will probably only be a week long before I have to return to work, again we'd be dealing with the whole "responsibility" thing. It'll be fun for the kids, but I'll spend the whole time being a grouch, I'm sure.
In short, learn from The Sure Thing if you're young enough to do so. Take a carefree road trip! I assume it's very fun!
The Sure Thing made its Blu-ray debut this week courtesy of Shout! Factory, who have ported over the commentary and retrospective pieces from an earlier DVD release.