The Sure Thing

(Rob Reiner, USA, 1985)


Note: This text was originally part of a 1990 essay, “Some Kind of Wonderful: An Introduction to the Contemporary Teen Movie”. For the surrounding discussion of the teen genre as a whole, a 74-page PDF of heretofore unpublished material written in 1989-1990 is now available exclusively to supporters of my Patreon campaign for this website: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin


A Synthetic Teen Movie


All elements of the 1980s teen movie can be synthesized in the space of a single film: this one.


The Sure Thing is a striking example of what is called the comedy of manners (Raymond Durgnat has written several superb surveys of this form). Manners are those aspects of people’s behaviour that are completely bound up with a specific social position and a precise moment in cultural history. Just as the teenagers of the 1950s cannot understand Marty McFly’s ‘80s music in Back to the Future (1985), many light comedies milk their laughs from the million and one ways in which, culturally, people can find themselves at cross-purposes, or in a state of mutual incomprehension.


Cop Nick (Arliss Howard) goes undercover in a high school in Plain Clothes (1989) and finds he cannot follow either contemporary teen jargon or contemporary teen sexual mores (although he catches on fast); Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) spouts earnest, ‘80s-style ego-psychology to her teen girlfriends in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and receives bemused stares; Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark (Brian Backer) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) fumble on a bed in an uncomfortably silent and temporarily unsuccessful search for the “love rules” (title of a Don Henley song used on the soundtrack) of who is meant to do what first, how and when.


Comedies of manners depend on precise cultural references, which sometimes date very quickly – and that is precisely what makes them interesting. It is not enough to pit, in a vague way, one character stereotype against another (say, a punk against a straight); we must be informed of their exact cultural tastes, affiliations and experiences. When a character in St Elmo’s Fire (1985) says to his girlfriend, “I want the Pretenders – the second album”, or one guy advises another in Fast Times at Ridgemont High that “Side 2 of Led Zeppelin IV” is the best sex music, the films count on us appreciating the specific citation. (These are also the kind of laughs most film reviewers seem rarely to notice or remember!)


Similarly with The Sure Thing: you need to be in the know that the show-tune singing couple in the car, with the fluffy toys, snug clothes, and “I Love E.T.” bumper sticker are an incarnation of the ephemeral, early-to-mid ‘80s, pre-New Age fad of “babytimers” (people studiously affecting childlike behaviour) in order to really get the joke. (Being pre-Internet, very little historic trace of babytimer culture survives today!)


 The Sure Thing could be said to combine a comedy of manners sensibility with a romantic comedy syntax. Following the latter, we have two teens of radically different character thrown together. Broadly, we could describe Gib (John Cusack) as a bit rough, vulgar, animalistic; and Alison (Daphne Zuniga) as prim, overly-restrained, unspontaneous. Many classic romantic comedies from It Happened One Night (1934) to Teacher’s Pet (1960) begin from much the same gender pattern. The invention of Reiner and his scriptwriters shows in the numerous precise ways they are able to flesh out, in cultural terms, this basic character distinction.


 There is not a single personal attribute on which the film does not make a humorous, systematic comparison between the two teenagers. There are the obvious differences in their respective clothing, body language and food preferences (his pizza, beer and cheeseballs versus her herbal tea). There is the discussion about what they each want to name a son: she chooses Elliot, he Nick (“The kinda guy that doesn’t mind if you puke in his car”). There are the separate descriptions of what they each consider a wild time: for him, “Getting shitfaced, making a complete fool of yourself, and still having an excellent time”; for her, passing out in Elvis’ bedroom during a tour of Graceland.


 Similar to Footloose (1984), The Sure Thing eventually manœuvres the two main characters away from their initially extreme positions. These extremes, of animalism and gentility respectively, get taken up by Gib’s friend Lance (whose level of gormless cultural pretension, as played by Anthony Edwards, is caught in his phone manner: “I’m talkin’ to you cordless”), and Alison’s boyfriend Jason (whose lack of libido is indicated by his purchase of flannel sheets, because they are the most economic form of bedding) played by Boyd Gaines. Meanwhile, Reiner and scriptwriters Steven Bloom & Jonathan Roberts engineer all kinds of small or large reciprocities between Gib and Alison that lead them to the true path of love: he begins to drop his permanent jokey spiel, and talks with honest emotion; she takes enthusiastic lessons in how to “shotgun” a can of beer.


The film is not a high energy spectacle; it belongs in a less heated tradition, more akin to the 1970s road movie ambience of American Graffiti (1973) or Corvette Summer (1978) than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). However, like John Hughes’ films, it is full of brilliant moments of narrative invention: surprising transitions from one scene to the next, key set-ups that are briefly hidden from us (as when Gib gets in the back of the pickup truck), sudden twists in the situation of which character has the centrally knowing point-of-view (as when Alison secretly hears, in the back of the truck, Gib’s tale of his “sure thing”, the girl  he intends to hook up with).


An aspect of iconic teen movie spectacle insistently parodied in the film (to hilarious effect) is Gib’s sexual fantasising: tropical reveries over his sure thing (incarnated by Nicollette Sheridan in an echo of Bo Derek in Blake Edwards10 [1979]) made incongruous by the mere fact of Gib floating into frame still wearing his winter leather jacket!


For Gib and Alison, the liminal experience so common to teen movies comes in the form of a detour from their path that is both literal and metaphorical, an encounter that makes them reconsider whether what they are consciously heading for (Jason and the prospect of a stable marriage for her, the one-nighter sure thing for him) is really what they want.


The concept of liminality was first analysed in relation to fairy tales, and it is therefore not so surprising that there’s a touch of the fairy tale in this lightly fantastic teen movie – particularly one that starts and ends with the wise oracle of a literature teacher (Viveca Lindfors, immortalised in Fritz Lang’s oneiric Moonfleet [1955]) giving a speech that sums up the advice proffered by so many teen movies.


Sleep when you feel like it, not when you think you should. Eat food that’s bad for you at least once in a while. Have conversations with people whose clothes are not colour co­ordinated. Make love in a hammock! Life is the ultimate experience.

MORE Reiner: The Story of Us, Stand by Me, Ghosts of Mississippi

© Adrian Martin March 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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