Movie Review: Can't Buy Me Love
Patrick Dempsey's romcom debut turns 30.
Can’t Buy Me Love is bankrupt at its core. The 1987 teen comedy starring Patrick Dempsey and the late Amanda Peterson has the trappings of a sweet 80s teen comedy about nerds and popular kids but lacks something in its heart. There is a cynicism at the center of Can’t Buy Me Love that the makers attempt to paper over by rushing to a climax that never feels right or especially earned.
Ronald Miller is our typical high school movie geek, stringy, shy, poorly dressed and into science. His crush is the most popular girl in school, Cindy, a cheerleader with a boyfriend who is now in college and is neglecting her affection. While Ronald pines from the seat of his lawnmower (he mows her lawn to the point he’s saved up $1000 while seeming to have only ever mowed Cindy’s lawn), Cindy is putting on a brave face about her absent boyfriend.
The plot kicks in when Cindy borrows an expensive outfit from her mother’s closet and ruins it. She desperately needs $1000 to replace the outfit and through plot contrivance, Ronald and his cold hard cash happen to be at the same mall attempting to buy a telescope, another 80s nerd signifier. Ronald offers his cash for Cindy to buy and replace her mom’s outfit in exchange for Cindy to go out with him and help him break into the cool clique at school.
The plan works as Cindy’s popularity rubs off on Ronald almost immediately. The two even begin to confide in one another and get close until Ronald misses his cue to kiss her for real and the two end up in a staged break up where Ronald compounds his blunders with cruel words he thinks are part of the act. Cindy is hurt and Ronald gets what he wants but not without a warning from her that being popular is harder than it looks. That’s what the makers of Can’t Buy Me Love don’t understand; while it goes through the motions of a lame redemption story for Ronald, the real story and the heart of the story belongs to Cindy whose struggle to maintain an image of perfection is harming her very soul.
The early portions of Can’t Buy Me Love have a little promise as Amanda Peterson does a lovely job of revealing Cindy’s emotional scars, the toll that her teenage mind has taken as she attempts to evince a perfection that is unattainable no matter how attractive she is. When she begins to reveal herself to Dempsey’s Ronald, Peterson’s vulnerability is winning and only gets better when she engages his interests and seems to forget about their arrangement.
However, this film having been written and directed by men and set-up as a standard, simple-minded redemption story can’t wait to shove Peterson aside in favor of the far less interesting Ronald. Though he’s intended as our hero, Ronald is really a cipher and Dempsey fails to give Ronald any qualities worth liking, he’s merely a pawn of a plot that happens to be centered on his character.
Ronald acts like a gigantic ass from the beginning to end of Can’t Buy Me Love and we are somehow supposed to find him sympathetic. In the minds of the makers of Can’t Buy Me Love not being popular is somehow a reason for us to feel for a character. There is a good reason Ronald isn’t popular, he’s rude, misogynistic, and willing to be cruel to people close to him to achieve his aims.
The scene where Ronald misses his cue to kiss Cindy and instead starts in on their dramatic break-up plan doesn’t reveal a shy kid who can’t believe the popular girl might really like him, it’s a scene about a character so wildly self-involved and jerky that he can only think of himself even at the cost of the thing that he claims to have always desired.
When Cindy has finally had enough and reveals that Ronald had paid her to go out with him the film hits its ugliest nadir when her visiting boyfriend refers to her as a whore. This characterization is never properly corrected and instead, the story follows Ronald as he heads home to cry himself to sleep, not because he hurt Cindy so deeply but because she hurt him by taking away his popular guy image. The sympathies of the filmmakers are ludicrously misplaced.
The film then rushes to redeem Ronald by setting up a scene where Ronald, having been rejected by his shallow popular friends and shunned by the friends he so rudely left behind, stands up for his former friend Kenny and talks about how silly the division between jocks and nerds truly is. It’s a nice speech and it demonstrates a minor amount of growth for Ronald but I can’t see how one speech is enough to forgive the previous 90 some minutes of his awful behavior.
The end then finds Ronald getting everything he could ever want. He gets his friends back, popular and unpopular alike, and he gets the girl despite having done nothing to repair their relationship. The final scene of Ronald driving away on his lawnmower with Cindy riding with him is supposed to be a romantic triumph but for me it plays like cheating from filmmakers forcing an undeserved happy ending in favor of a male protagonist simply because he is the supposed lead character.
Somehow, Can’t Buy Me Love is a movie that has lingered in the consciousness of the past 30 years but I can’t understand why. While it has the look and feel of a John Hughes movie it doesn’t respect its characters the way Hughes always did. Can’t Buy Me Love is a bad screenwriters idea of how a Hughes movie works with an especially strong mean streak towards women who are sexual playthings or victims whose pain is easily dismissed by a forced happy ending.