I have some vague memories of seeing Can’t Buy Me Love in the movie theatre. Vague, most likely, because I was six years old in 1987. I remember going with my cousin and my two, much older sisters while we were visiting my grandparents. Going to the movies was a regular occurrence when visiting my mom’s parents and they usually did not go with us. I fell asleep sporadically during my first viewing of Can’t Buy Me Love, Steve Rash’s 80’s romantic comedy, but the two major things that stand out in my memory after all these years are: a young, pre-McDreamy-Patrick Dempsey, playing Ronnie Miller, (a so-called high school “nerd,” hoping to gain popularity by paying a cheerleader to pretend to be his girlfriend) and the finale, where he and his cheerleader love interest Cindy, (RIP Amanda Peterson), ride off into the sunset on a lawn mower to the titular Beatles’ hit.
I remember Can’t Buy Me Love as part of my “cousin-canon”: movies I watched frequently at a young age with my cousin, (usually early in the morning before anyone else woke up and realized we were watching them). The cousin canon contained other 80’s films such as: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Labyrinth, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Better Off Dead, Adventures in Babysitting, The Goonies, Stand By Me, Some Kind of Wonderful and even the very very sad, Project X. So where did Can’t Buy Me Love fit into the mix? Was it just fueled by a love of the excellently coiffed Patrick Dempsey? Why didn’t we just watch Loverboy more?
So to try to figure this out, I did it; I rewatched Can’t Buy Me Love 30 years later.
These are my initial thoughts in random order:
Seth Green. I did not remember a young Seth Green playing the precocious wisecracking little brother, Chuckie Miller. Even in 1987 he is SO SETH GREEN.
The things identified as “nerdy,” in the film, (like wearing berets and Buddy Holly glasses, or playing poker on a Saturday night with your friends), are now deemed cool. Hell, they were still pretty cool even in the 80’s, just apparently not in the Tucson, AZ high school where the film takes place.
There are some pretty offensive “retard” jokes in this film. Several of them. Not okay. There’s also plenty of fart jokes. If given the option, I prefer those. Steve Rash directed the excellent, Buddy Holly Story, but he also directed Pauly Shore in Son In Law. Consider that.
My biggest takeaway from watching the film? Dating an older college guy sucks. So with that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the film.
Our leading lady Cindy spends the beginning of the film waiting for her old boyfriend Bobby to return her calls, but now that he is off playing football in college he seems to be blowing her off. Cindy’s dad is not in the picture either, as we witness her mom’s sleazy new boyfriend hit on Cindy while he stops by to pick up her mom for a date. After her mom says no, Cindy disobeys her by borrowing an expensive white suede outfit for a party, which she later admits was just to impress her friends. She lies, saying Bobby sent it to her, shortly before major scumbag, Quint, (played by Cort McCown), spills red wine all over her. The next day, Cindy goes to the mall in tears and begs the storeowner to let her work there in exchange for a new outfit so she can avoid telling her mom what happened. Meanwhile across the way, Ronald (Dempsey) is about to put the one thousand dollars he has earned mowing lawns over the last several years to use to buy a telescope. He spots Cindy in her moment of need and rushes to her aid, pitching a proposal: pretend to be his girlfriend for an entire month and help him become popular, and he will give her the one thousand dollars to buy a new outfit. After Cindy agrees, the two promise never to reveal their deal to anyone.
A little hair mousse and some ripped sleeves later, and Ronald is ready to pose as Cindy’s new boyfriend. After a few awkward encounters with her jock and popular friends, they are surprisingly accepting. They pose the, “well if he’s with Cindy he’s cool” attitude, which in reality is how things should be. Too bad Ronald and Cindy couldn’t have met and become friends on their own without a financial exchange. As they continue their planned lunches, pizza after school and “dates” on Saturdays, Cindy and Ronald actually become friends and grow to truly like each other. They open up to each other: Ronald about his own insecurities and hopes to become popular, while Cindy let’s Ronald read some of her bad poetry and swears him to secrecy. He tells her during a moment of doubt that she can do anything she wants, “anything you put your heart and mind into.” Poor Cindy who lacks a positive male influence in her life, mostly just likes cheerleading and shopping. We think, “This must be it!” Maybe Ronald is going to help Cindy embrace her inner nerd, write more poetry, and accept him for himself in the process. But alas, that isn’t exactly what happens next.
After a particularly romantic last date at a graveyard for historic planes, Cindy thinks Ronald is finally going to confess real feelings for her (or maybe just kiss her), but instead he asks, “How should we plan our big breakup at school?” This is when Ronald lets us down. Rather than falling for Cindy as she has for him, he has his eye on the prize: popularity. He uses her materialism against her, claiming loudly at school that she has sucked him dry financially, and that he is “sick of being compared to Bobby.” This hits Cindy surprisingly hard. Her “staged” slap across Ronald’s face is all too real.
But their stunt works; Ronald stays friends with the jocks (including a character called “Big John” who looks like he is 40), and suddenly Cindy’s girlfriends are vying for Ronald’s affection. In a surprise twist, Cindy tries to warn Ronald to stay true to himself. But his answer to his sudden rise in popularity is to use more hair gel, and wear a bolo tie with a blazer that looks like it was made from a large Navajo blanket. We are eventually led to the treat of seeing Ronald at a high school dance. In an earlier scene he frantically practices dance moves from what he thinks is American Bandstand, but what is really an African Cultural Hour program on PBS. He takes these new moves out onto the dance floor, and in another completely fictional best-case scenario, all the popular kids accept it and play along, learning and mimicking the dance moves. That would never happen in real life. Never. Ever. Cindy is pissed and storms off with her new longhaired, leather-jacket-wearing college boyfriend who happens to drive a fancy sports car, and frequently demands extra thick milkshakes. Cindy later sees Ronald and realizes that she doesn’t need this college tool, dumping a milkshake over his head onto his fancy white sports car, maybe a subtle comment on her rejecting the use of her mom’s white suede outfit earlier in the film. She appeals to Ronald one last time, saying she has written a new poem just for him, and asks about hanging out again at the airplane graveyard. But it is too late. Popularity has gone to “Ronnie’s” head. He no longer has time for Cindy, because it reminds him of his old nerdy self.
Throughout Ronald’s transformation from “nerd” to “cool” we see his best friend, (the ginger fox Kenneth played by Courtney Gains), try to reach out to him again and again to reason with him. But Ronald continues to blow him off as well for his new friends, the popular crowd. Gains plays Kenneth as sort of a cross between a young Ron Howard and Bill Gates. He is sweet and loyal and unapologetically himself. From the beginning of the film when Ronald first suggests “Wouldn’t it be nice to be popular?” Kenneth replies, “And be in a clique?” Naw, he likes who he is and where he is now. Ronald destroys his friendship with Kenneth however, when he accompanies his new jock “friends” while they prank houses on Mischief Night before Halloween. Not realizing they are going to Kenneth’s house until it is too late, Ronald tries to suggest going elsewhere but is forced to choose. And he chooses to throw a bag of dog poop at Kenneth’s front door. So. Goddamn. Lame. When Kenneth catches him, he is so surprised to find that it is Ronald that he lets him go before his dad can call the cops. But Kenneth won’t forgive Ronald afterwards no matter how many times he apologizes. This leads to possibly the most dramatic scene in the film where an angry Kenneth cries/screams, “You shit on my house, man!” slamming him against an arcade game and bringing both him and Ronald practically to tears.
Ronald’s fifteen minutes of fame are up though on New Year’s Eve, when a drunk and annoyed Cindy overhears Ronald spewing some of her bad poetry to another girl just to get laid. Bobby, Cindy’s ultra lame college boyfriend finally returns, (since all his friends are apparently still in high school), and he gets ‘roid rage angry with Cindy, demanding answers about her supposed relationship with Ronald. Cindy finally spills the beans and roasts Ronald in front of everyone, blowing his cover and explaining their one thousand dollar deal. Suddenly no one will speak to or even look at him. This is also in my opinion, unbelievable. There had to be someone at that party that actually didn’t like Cindy. Or didn’t care. No high school student is that moral. But Ronald ends New Year’s Eve in the shed where he keeps his lawn mower, lying on what appears to be a burlap sack, crying himself to sleep. Sheesh.
Ronald continues to attempt reconciliation not only with Kenneth, but also with Cindy. Telling her he made a mistake and lost himself in becoming popular, he says she, “Brought him back to reality,” and all he ever wanted (apparently) was to become close to her. Even though we can tell Cindy feels bad about what she did, she continues to avoid Ronald, along with everyone else at school. He is no longer welcome within any clique or crowd. Shunned at lunch, he is forced to eat alone.
Later when ginger underdog Kenneth becomes interested in his own cheerleading babe Patty, (Darcy DeMoss), he helps her with her math homework during lunch, until Quint, the biggest sleaze-jerk, harasses him. Quint tells him to leave their side of the cafeteria and stop, “pulling a Ronald Miller.” Cindy appeals to the other jocks, asking if they are going to stop Quint from hurting Kenneth, but they just shrug and continue to watch. Suddenly Ronald grabs a baseball bat (because apparently the jocks all play baseball as well as football?), and the music swells dramatically while Ronald tells Quint to leave Kenneth alone. When Quint refuses, Ronald threatens to break his “pitching arm” and slams the bat on the table to show that he means it; he’s crazy man. Ronald then brings up how back in sixth grade when they were all still friends, Quint had fallen out of Ronald’s tree house and broke his arm. Kenneth and Ronald had carried Quint 12 blocks to the hospital back then, with Kenneth commenting that Quint had, “cried the whole way there.” Ronald then delivers the line: “Nerds, jocks. My side, your side. It’s all bullshit. It’s hard enough just trying to be yourself,” before handing over the bat and walking away. Quint and ginger prince Kenneth then shake hands and everyone starts clapping, while the only female teacher and the African American Biology teacher (who never takes off his lab coat) look on approvingly.
We conclude our story with Ronald back where he started: mowing Cindy’s lawn. Cindy is about to go off with friends. Ronald is wearing the same “You are here” t-shirt with an arrow pointing to a spot in the Milky Way, that he was wearing at the start of the film, but he has traded his “nerdy” safari hat for a “cool” black cowboy hat, a sign of his character arc apparently. As he turns his back and continues to mow, we hear a frantic sounding call of “Ronald?” and find Cindy, out of the car, looking his way expectantly. Her friends cheer her on and she runs up and jumps on the back of his lawn mower, taking his cowboy hat and putting it on in the process. They start discussing plans for “this time around” before Ronald asks, “What about kissing?” We then finally see them kiss as they ride off into the sunset on the mower, while the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” loudly plays.
Goddamn, Patrick Dempsey’s hair is so good in this movie, but I still don’t think that makes up for most of the rest of the film. I looked up writer, Michael Swerdlick on IMDB to see what else he had done, and besides Can’t Buy Me Love, his major credits include: Doogie Howser, an episode of Boy Meets World and two movies starring the Olsen twins. Needless to say, he is no John Hughes. While the moral of the story to be true to yourself is a good one, it rings a bit false by the end of the film. The sweetness and chemistry between Ronald and Cindy, (thanks to Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson) seems genuine and sincere, but I wish we could have seen Ronald figure things out a bit more on his own before being outted to the popular kids, but hell, it’s still an iconic end scene and a happy ending.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro