Can’t Buy Me Love must have hit me at the perfect time for me to be receptive to this idea. I was not quite ten and it seemed like the answer to all a young boy’s problems. If you need a girlfriend and want to be popular, why not just buy one? It’s two for the price of one! Now I’m mature enough to know that’s wrong on both counts, I can really appreciate the depth Can’t Buy Me Love brought to this childish fantasy.
Nerds wanting to be popular and date the cheerleader was a reliable formula. Ronald (Patrick Dempsey) saved up $1500 mowing lawns all summer. Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) wore her mom’s suede outfit to a party where a jock spilled red wine on it. A replacement costs $1000 so Ronald proposes a plan to bail her out.
Interesting how they gloss over the finer points of the deal. He says just enough to lay out the plot in a trailer. “I want to rent you. It’ll make me popular.” She protests and he bets $1000 on it. The part where he actually proposes this plan and she presumably acts aghast is shown through a telescope across the mall as silent slapstick with Ronald jumping around gesticulating. By the time we get close, she’s had time to weigh her desperation with his offensive proposal.
As much as I believe this is something a kid would try, I also believe it’s something a kid would accept. Adults have options like credit cards and layaway. To Cindy, this sounds less painful than telling her mom she ruined her $1000 suede.
The thing is Ronald never tried just asking. I get being nervous but part of growing up is learning to talk to people. Cindy was seeing someone else, so it’s not like she was available. Anyway the message is this was a bad idea. There’s comedy in it and there’s a honeymoon phase where it seems like it’s working, but Goodfellas had that too. Ultimately cocaine wasn’t a sound business model either. Can’t Buy Me Love is on the right side of history condemning Ronald’s plan, unlike Revenge of the Nerds which rewarded a far more damaging plan (if this is the first you’re hearing of that, Google “Revenge of the Nerds Rape.”)
Ronald’s friends are immediately sympathetic. He abandons them on their weekly card game. I get that Ronald was bored of their routine but he should have told them ahead of time he was going to a party with Cindy. Even if he doesn’t fill them in on his real plan, they’d be happy for him. Any of them would support one of their own getting a date with any of their classmates, and would probably be classier about it than the jocks with whom Ronald is now associating.
Layered in there is the misogyny of the ’80s in which Cindy grew up. Her mom’s new boyfriend ogles her and I imagine this is not the first sleazy man Mom brought home. It’s clear Cindy feels demeaned by this but perhaps feels she can’t say anything because her mom looks the other way. Cindy may be repeating her mother’s mistakes too. She dates boys who see her as a prize. Even Ronald saw her as that at first. It’s a pattern and the movie shows Cindy can escape it and become empowered. She stands up to the milkshake man and it’s magnificent. But she’s still victim blamed for agreeing to Ronald’s plan under duress. Sadly, I feel the message of Can’t Buy Me Love is more relevant than ever. Hopefully it shows young viewers that they can empower themselves if they’re surrounded by adults who look the other way when they’re being mistreated.
The good thing Ronald does is treat Cindy like a person when they’re together. He reads her poetry and encourages her to write more. It’s not deep but it’s there to tell kids they can have other interests than the roles society tells them to fill, and that being interested in other people’s interests is the most endearing quality you can display.
I keep calling them kids. They seem so young to me now. When I first saw this they were the cool older kids, especially since the actors were actually in their ’20s. The cast of Back to the Future still doesn’t look younger than me 30 years later and on my death bed I’ll still believe Bruce Willis is older than me in Die Hard, but Dempsey and Peterson in Can’t Buy Me Love could be my children.
At nine, I did not realize Cindy was ready to sleep with Ronald on their last date, because, you know, I didn’t know what that was. Now as an adult I can say YOU FOOL. CANCEL YOUR PLAN AND JUST DATE THE GIRL OF YOUR DREAMS. Her college boyfriend was ignoring her. She was just starting to realize this and discover the lawn boy had more depth than a college jock. Of course, it took me longer than my senior year to be able to read people so it’s fair to show Ronald missed his window.
There is a reality of high school caste system but I think the subtext of Ronald’s popularity was that it was mostly his confidence. He walked into school with a flashy suit and the attitude that he didn’t care what anyone thought. The confidence sells it more than his status. Granted, he might not be able to convey the confidence if he still thought the jocks were going to bully him.
Yet Ronald is corrupted. He could have used his popularity for good, to be the change he wished to see in the world. Instead he lashes out against people who were nice to him. This time, I was rooting for Cindy to expose his ruse and bring him down. Ronald has to suffer for the cautionary tale to work and Dempsey really sells the remorse in the third act.
Boy, Cindy’s disbelief seems prescient. She thinks there’s no way just dating her will make Ronald popular. She agrees thinking it’ll cover her $1000 problem with her mom and nothing will change. She can’t believe it worked and she rightfully calls out the lemmings for buying it. Well, last year a lot of us thought you can’t just run for president with no public service experience. People won’t actually vote for that. What I’m saying is I am Cindy Mancini. We should never overestimate people’s ability to see through bullshit.
The African Anteater dance is still funny. Of course the message is the emperor has no clothes. No one has enough self-confidence to say, “That’s not right.” Actually, the “nerds” are. The insecure popular kids just follow along so they can be part of the club.
In the ensuing 30 years I saw Patrick Dempsey reinvent himself as a leading man. It was a sad ending for Peterson who died young in 2015. Seth Green, who played little brother Chuckie, also grew up and starred in hit shows, blockbuster movies and produces Robot Chicken.
I never saw the remake Love Don’t Cost a Thing until this weekend. The kids seem older in 2003, that’s for sure. It’s updated with pagers, but that’s still a bygone era, and HTML code is the hot new tech. Alvin (Nick Cannon) and Paris (Christina Milian) go on a date to a slam poetry bar instead of the airplane junkyard. It’s also as homophobic as any ’80s movie, which Can’t Buy Me Love fortunately avoids. I’m surprised how much of a direct remake it is, down to the college athlete dissing his high school girlfriend in a TV interview and Paris gets Alvin’s name wrong (not as funny as Ronald/Donald). They didn’t even adjust the $1500 for inflation. Let’s just say I won’t be writing about the 30th anniversary of Love Don’t Cost a Thing in 2033.
She’s All That is a more fitting heir to Can’t Buy Me Love, although it’s as much an homage to Sabrina. Setting Pygmalion in high school automatically makes it a gender flipped Can’t Buy Me Love and it’s great. It respects the teenagers as much as Can’t Buy Me Love did too. Then of course Mean Girls offered another deconstruction of popularity.
It’s weird to reflect on this from the other side of high school. It’s not just a funny comedy about a high school outcast gaming the system. It’s got a lot to say. I wonder if this is what my parents saw when they took my sister and I to see Can’t Buy Me Love 30 years ago. I think they were happy enough to see their children enjoy something and do the Anteater dance in the parking lot. I don’t remember if we actually did that but I’d like to think we did.