Archie Bunker probably would have never suspected that his meathead son in law would become such a great director, but from his classic debut “Spinal Tap” until he made the big money mistake that was “North,” Rob Reiner was about as close to automatic as they come. His “Harry Met Sally” was an intelligent and funny rewrite of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” and his sophomore effort “The Sure Thing” is a great teen update of Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” I’m all in favor of letting him try to redo “Gone With the Wind” with Billy Crystal and Kathy Baker as a love torn couple amid the ruins of the Janet Reno-David Koresh Waco debacle.
I’m not sure why flighty guys are so attracted to brainy serious types but they are and John Cusack has hit gold with two such films, here and in the even better “Say Anything.” It’s hard to underestimate how knowledgeable this movie is about the difference between what people think they want and what they really want. Cusack is Walter “Gib” Gibson who makes the common but understandable mistake of becoming an Ivy League Eastern College Freshman instead of following his buddy Lance to a party school in California. He is a little like Bill Murray’s son set adrift in an unsympathetic world. He writes his English essays on the finer points of eating pizza, thinks sno-balls and pork rinds are a part of a balanced daily diet, and likes more than anything the sound of his own voice. He soon finds himself unilaterally celibate and on the brink of flunking out of school. He also makes a quick enemy of Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) by making a pass out of a perceived tutorial mission. Alison is of course repressed, overly organized, and in love with a cardboard geek. She’s the type of girl, who schedules sexual encounters in her day planner, if she has them at all.
Lance mockingly sends Gib a picture of a gorgeous California blonde with the footnote “this is the ugliest girl in California”, and promises Gib a guaranteed sure thing if he can just make it out to California in time for winter break. Not surprisingly, when Alison needs a ride to California to see her Poindexter pre-law boyfriend, they wind up in the same car along with a show tune singing happy at all costs couple led by real life Cusack pal Tim Robbins in a enjoyable cameo as Gary Cooper, but not that Gary Cooper. The two wind up arguing so much that they are soon left near broke on the side of the road by the annoyed and fed up singing couple, and Cusack spends the rest of the movie convincing Zuniga of the value of a wasted but enjoyable life, and his considerable charm as they meander closer and closer to California and the completion of his mission.
Steven Bloom and Jonathon Roberts script is taut and full of juicy monologues for Cusack to spout and live by. Their vision of Los Angeles college life is almost as convincingly tempting as a prime era Beach Boy song. You know how this thing is going to end. The secret is in pulling off a believable and affecting taming of the shrew, and for Zuniga’s character to appear more and more worth the effort as the ice in her veins slowly begins to dissolve. It’s a paper target but seeing Zuniga trying to relate to her boyfriend post-life with Cusack is smartly amusing Much to the filmmakers credit in presenting a movie that seems to boast and market the life altering effects of sex with no consequences, the ending turns out to be especially moving, chaste, and sincere. A wonderful start for Cusack and Reiner and a one way ticket to “Spaceballs” and Melrose Place for Zuniga.