**/**** Image B Sound C- Extras B+
starring Nicolas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily, Cameron Dye
screenplay by Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford
directed by Martha Coolidge
THE SURE THING
**½/**** Image A Sound B Extras B
starring John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Viveca Lindfors, Nicollette Sheridan
screenplay by Steven L. Bloom & Jonathan Roberts
directed by Rob Reiner
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I spent the better part of 1983 in a hospital hooked up to a poetically elaborate I.V., the end result of a pyeloplasty to repair an irritable kidney. Media saturation wasn't then what it is now, and living sheltered like that made it doubly easy for movies to pass by my radar undetected. But in the strange case of Valley Girl, which I didn't even know existed until four or five years after its release (once its star, Nicolas Cage, was on the rise), I climbed aboard the bandwagon unbeknownst: The weekday nurses--who seemed old to me then but whom I now realize were probably in their early-twenties at best--returned to work one spring Monday having adopted an entirely new dialect and nicknamed themselves "the Valley girls." My susceptible young mind took to the language--I still talk like a goddamn Valley girl.
I'm probably butchering the chronology, compressing certain things, conflating others (predating Valley Girl by almost a year, the sitcom "Square Pegs" is likely as culpable for the perversion of mine and the national vernacular), but I vividly remember a hospital worker securing a tube to my skin with a "gag me with a spoon" sticker. If any of this holds water, though, the nurses, as folks are wont to do, missed the lesson of the film, which, while next to impossible to define, sure isn't "emulate this parade of froufrou twats." The film claims to promote "individuality," but you'll find that the trickiest cause going, since you risk nurturing belligerence or a variety of social disorders. Safer to consider Valley Girl "Romeo and Juliet" sans the tragic bits. It's actually not very insightful if you read it in the socio-economic terms of a John Hughes picture; Hughes would twist the dynamics of Valley Girl so that they would resonate, but here you're stuck with Valley snobs and Hollywood slobs behaving with commensurate hostility towards one another to meaningless effect. I'm astounded that intelligent people take this extension of the summer-camp genre so seriously.
If Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing doesn't seem as novel as Valley Girl (which is at least tonally off-kilter, thanks in no small part to the casting of Cage during his live-wire phase), that's because it's everything but an official remake of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra's Oscar-winning charmer concerning reluctant male (Clark Gable)/female (Claudette Colbert) traveling companions. Stars John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga are no Gable and Colbert, but they make for interesting juniorfied versions, with Cusack able to match Gable's blithe disdain for having to use more than his natural charisma to pick up a woman and Zuniga cute as a button in a very earthbound way like Colbert. His touch light and comic, director Reiner even suggests one of the more promising Capra wannabes in The Sure Thing, although his career ironically took a nosedive once he became Capra's explicit heir apparent with the windy and anachronistic Aaron Sorkin-penned dramas A Few Good Men and The American President.
While Valley Girl is a qualified R, the PG-13 The Sure Thing typifies something a little less innocuous, founded as it is on the premise of guaranteed, no-strings-attached sex (with a woman played by Nicollette Sheridan) for Cusack's hard-up East Coast college student Walter "Gib" Gibson if he can hustle it out to California in time. Stuck taking the trip with the uptight Alison (Zuniga), who hitches the same ride, he inevitably grows attached to her (and she to him, as exemplified by the dismantling of her sense of etiquette), but fantasy sequences involving Sheridan in a string bikini offer jolting reminders that the movie refers to its secondary female character as a "thing." An integrity moral proves hypocritical at best: Gib supposedly proves something by shunning, for fear of cheating on his own heart, the advances of Sheridan's character--whose debasement via the embarrassment of throwing herself at John Cusack and getting rejected amounts to a dishonourable attempt at schadenfreude, such a sweet person does she turn out to be. It feels like the revenge of geek filmmakers against pretty girls out of their league, marking The Sure Thing as a distant cousin to the deplorable The Truth About Cats and Dogs, in which Uma Thurman is egregiously punished for her beauty.
The Sure Thing has to live up to her hype, of course, or Gib hasn't made any hard choices, but that doesn't stop a form of misogyny from rearing its head, stalling the film's romantic momentum. Valley Girl also runs out of steam in the homestretch, mostly because it starts making the heroine's (fresh-faced Deborah Foreman) decisions for her: Cage's Randy wants Foreman's Julie back after she's pressured into dumping him by her mallrat peers; his success is so inevitable that director Martha Coolidge can't be bothered to outline its terms, settling on a couple of incohesive vignettes before throwing the on-again couple into the back of a limo together. Coolidge is also detrimentally preoccupied with The Graduate (first apparent in a pointless subplot revolving around a suburban siren (the ageless Lee Purcell) and the grocery delivery boy she's trying to seduce--she advises him to switch from paper bags to "plastics"), and the morose Benjamin Braddock/Elaine Robinson facial expressions of Randy and Julie in that prom rental stand in direct contradiction to the refrain of Modern English's "Melt With You" on the soundtrack.
Like her contemporary Amy Heckerling did in the wildly overrated Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Coolidge slips some darkness into Valley Girl that's difficult to reconcile with the surrounding sunny void. (Heckerling, incidentally, would go on to borrow The Graduate's Berkeley montage and its signature Simon & Garfunkel song "Scarborough Fair" for Loser, a far more offensive film than either of those under discussion.) There's an emotionally violent passage near the beginning of Valley Girl wherein one of Julie's friends (carnal-lipped Elizabeth Daily, who went on to voice Babe the Pig (as E.G. Daily)) gets frisky with Julie's brand-new ex (Michael Bowen) that ultimately serves the purpose of a peepshow; missed opportunities for deeper explorations of the politics of California youth collect on the film like dust. Though Cage is compelling, his progressively flippant performance suggests nothing more nor less than a mounting irreverence for the project. If we identify with Randy, it's because we stop giving a shit about Valley Girl before it's over, too.
Valley Girl and The Sure Thing arrive on DVD in concurrent Special Editions from MGM; each is a DVD-14 dividing supplementals and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen/unmatted presentations over two sides. Although both films were well-scrubbed prior to transfer, The Sure Thing is the clear winner visually and aurally, exhibiting fewer source-print defects and sounding close to full-bodied in its Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Valley Girl's 5.1 track is plagued by a dialogue channel of AM-radio calibre--the original mono track is preferable if only to decrease the qualitative discrepancy between music and voices.
|Films excerpted by MGM for their "Best of the 1980's" trailer|
|-Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
-Desperately Seeking Susan
-The Sure Thing
-Blame It On Rio
-The Rachel Papers
-Johnny Be Good
-Bright Lights, Big City
-Making the Grade
-Back to School
Although the Valley Girl herself Deborah Foreman is absent among all of the disc's Ludovico Technique-produced bonus material, Cage, wearing a snakeskin jacket and green-tinted sunglasses, laconically submits to talking heads for the featurettes "Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later" (24 mins.), "The Music of Valley Girl" (16 mins.), and the admittedly enjoyable "In Conversation: Nicolas Cage and Martha Coolidge" (20 mins.). Cage reveals that at the time of the shoot, he actually admired his on-screen rival Bowen, a real-life badass who became a Valley boy only through study and effort. Bowen and Cameron Dye (Cage's in-film best friend, Fred) say they've grown to embrace Valley Girl's legacy, but these documentaries simultaneously overstate that legacy--Coolidge provides the obligatory who'da-thunk-we'd-be-sitting-here-because-of-this-film-twenty-years-later remark--and fail to pinpoint what it consists of. (Beyond, perhaps, introducing middle-America to a half-decent wedding song in "Melt With You." (Noting that they have to close their sets with the tune or audiences won't stay through the show, Modern English frontman Robbie Grey conributes, along with Peter Case, lead singer of The Plimsouls, the frankest observations to be found in the package.)) A wholly redundant feature-length commentary with Coolidge, further interview snippets that pop-up as "video commentary" (see above), an "80's [sic] nostalgia & trivia track," storyboard-to-film comparisons, music videos for "Melt With You" and The Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away," and trailers for Valley Girl, Legally Blonde, The Sure Thing, and "The Best of the 1980's" (see inset) round out the platter.
The Sure Thing contains a Rob Reiner yakker that opens with a signature anecdote (he had his cinematographer (Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson's future DP) direct Sheridan's sunbathing number because he was too embarrassed to do it himself) before becoming the long-form version of his presence in the flipside mini-docs "The Road to The Sure Thing" (26 mins.), "Dressing The Sure Thing" (9 mins.), and "Casting The Sure Thing" (7 mins.). (The final featurette, "Reading The Sure Thing" (5 mins.), consists of co-screenwriter Steven Bloom reading from his treatment for a student-film incarnation of The Sure Thing based more explicitly on autobiographical events.) Cusack is relentless in his praise of Reiner--it's nice to see such a notorious prickly pear get so sentimental and, aside from repeat endeavours by various interviewees to pass the film in question off as "timeless," maybe the disc's one genuine surprise. A trivia track plus trailers for "The Best of the 1980's" and, in addition to The Sure Thing, Reiner's The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap, finish off the disc, with the exception of a handful of easy-to-find Easter egg outtakes from "The Road to The Sure Thing" toplined by Sheridan. Originally published: July 29, 2003.
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