Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can't Buy Me Love (1987)

There are times when you need to prevent yourself from viewing a movie through a critical lens, and just enjoy it for what it is. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. On these occasions, tearing down the barrier that divides the movie and the critic can allow you to form an attachment to a film that is forever binding.

Can't Buy Me Love, whose title was undoubtedly inspired by the popular Beatles's song of the same name, appropriately opens with that very song. Right then and there, you knew the film would have good taste in music.

It is a popular theme in movies to take a close look at the high-school cultural hierarchy that exists in America. When this happens, it's always interesting to see how it is interpreted by each specific movie. It's so popular that any casual moviegoer can identify a handful of such movies off the top of their head, most of which will probably be fairly recent creations. However, Can't Buy Me Love, made in 1987, more than likely came first.

The film, written by Michael Swerdick and directed by Steve Rash, stars a young Patrick Dempsey as Ronald Miller. We first see him riding a lawn mower, staring longingly at "the cools" in his school, namely Cindy Mancini, played by Amanda Peterson. With curly, unkempt hair, goofy glasses, and a puny physique, Ronald is your stereotypical nerd. Cindy, meanwhile, has blond hair and a pretty face, is the coolest girl in school, and for Ronald, represents the unattainable.

Set in Arizona, the film makes sure to establish the relationship between Cindy and Ronald right away, and we learn that it is nonexistent. Cindy is seen standing on her own doorstep, confronted by her mother (Sharon Farrell), who says to her, "Why can't you be more mature like the Miller boy?" The camera then cuts to Ronald, who is mowing their lawn, which at that moment -- conveniently -- spits grassy residue back in his face. Cindy is reduced to laughter, and replies, "Mother, get serious."

Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love
But in reality, Ronald has everything going for him. He's incredibly intelligent and a hard-worker, the latter of which earned him $1,500 from mowing lawns all summer long. But there's one thing missing that Ronald, a high school senior, wants -- popularity. He knows that, as a senior, he has one more chance to make his mark.

The opportunity finally presents itself when he's at the mall one afternoon. Ronald, having an interest in astronomy, plans to spend his summer earnings on a fancy new telescope. However, while at the mall, he discovers a better investment. He spots a distressed Cindy, who recently ruined her mother's best dress, and is trying to replace it to no avail. Since she can't afford the $1,000 for a new dress, that's when Ronald steps in. He gives Cindy a proposition she can't refuse; he'll buy her the dress, but she has to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. And just like that, you have your plot.

Can't Buy Me Love is not original by any means. It plays off the most common of stereotypes, and the dialogue is fairly basic. But the movie has passion. Dempsey plays Ronald with a deep intensity, as if he knew that he was representing the geeks of America who all wish to have their chance with the head cheerleader.

Having no idea how to act "cool," it's humorous at first for the viewer to see Ronald's behavior. But slowly and surely, his plan actually starts to work. He ditches his nerdy best friend Kenneth (Courtney Gains) and makes new, cooler friends (Cort McCown, Eric Bruskotter). Cindy, abiding by their "contractual agreement," does her part by spending time with Ronald, and even gives him some fashion advice. And just like that, Ronald disappears and Ronnie is born.

As predicted, the new-found popularity develops an inflated ego in Ronald's head. He's pursued by other girls in the school, and suddenly, his popularity reaches "legendary status." But even though he's changing, the old Ronnie still comes out when he's with Cindy, and in another unsurprising turn of events, it turns out the two of them are actually very compatible. In a scene emblazoned in 80s cinema lore, Ronald and Cindy are together at an airplane graveyard, which until then was Ronald's "private place." By letting her in, she subsequently let's him in, and before you know it, Cindy starts to see Ronald in an entirely new light.

I probably didn't need to give that elaborate rundown of the plot. I could have given you one single line of plot synopsis, and you could have guessed the entire movie. But that doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the movie, or even come to love the movie. It's a story for the romantics at heart, and will remind everyone of that one girl in their lives who they never thought they had a chance with.

Dempsey and Amanda Peters riding off on a lawn mower.
The movie also scrutinizes social classes, and Ronald gives an impassioned and emotional speech on the subject later in the movie, which brings the movie back to it's original message. Though Ronald exhibits his plan to perfection, only to have it inevitably backfire in his face, he of course learns a valuable life lesson along the way that tells us that we can't really change who we are. He manages to put everything into perspective while delivering a perfect heart-wrenching speech to Cindy at the film's close, encompassing all that he -- and the viewer -- has learned in the last 90 minutes. It's a speech that will make the hopeless romantics of the world tremble with joy.

Call it cliche, call it unoriginal, but Can't Buy Me Love will make you feel something. It's an endearing movie that you can watch over and over again. Patrick Dempsey plays an extremely memorable character in Ronald Miller, and Amanda Peterson is nothing short of beautiful to look at. You may also note the introduction of a young Seth Green, who plays Ronald's younger brother, Chuckie. And like John Cusack lifting the boom box in Say Anything, Patrick Dempsey riding off on a lawn mower will be another 80s scene that you'll never forget.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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