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Can’t Buy Me Love; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

can't buy me loveOriginally released 14 Aug 1987
Screenplay by Michael Swerdlick
Directed by Steve Rash

Starring Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson

My rating: ★★1/2 stars

Slight teen romantic comedy features engaging performances.

Yesterday, the public learned of the death of Amanda Peterson this past weekend. Although she had a number of film and TV credits—including the little seen but excellent one-season series, A Year in the Life—she’s best known as Cindy Mancini, the popular girl whom Patrick Dempsey’s Ronald Miller hires to be his girlfriend in Can’t Buy Me Love.

Surprisingly, Peterson was only 15 when the movie was filmed. Dempsey was 20. Their relative youth compared to the stars of many teen movies aids the believability of their performances. Can’t Buy Me Love focuses on the awkwardness and insecurity of adolescence, and older actors tend to be unable to capture the painful self-consciousness of that age.

In the 1980s, Dempsey specialized in what I’ll call “geek chic”—outwardly geeky characters who overcome their awkwardness to find social and romantic success (see also In the Mood and Loverboy). At that time, he embodied adolescent insecurity, as does his character, Ronald. Even though Cindy is the most popular girl in the school, she also suffers from painful self-doubt. The uncertainty that Peterson brings to her performance endears Cindy to us. This roundness of character helps us root for Cindy and Ronald as a couple.

The performances of the two leads are the movie’s main strength. Unfortunately, the film as a whole fails to prove worthy of them. As the film progresses, it gets increasingly trite. There are obligatory scenes at a drunken rager and a school dance. At the end of the film, when a character delivers an honest, heartfelt speech that highlights the themes of the film, he receives a slow clap, leading to a universal ovation. Most importantly, Ronald falls into the tired character arc of the outsider becoming popular and losing his sense of self, ignoring his true friends, and acting like a jerk. This storyline may have been less overused in 1987, but it wasn’t new. The Heavenly Kid, featuring a similar character arc, appeared two years earlier. Not only is this plot hackneyed, it leads to the protagonist becoming thoroughly unlikable for a good portion of the movie, potentially alienating viewers.

Appearing in the post-John Hughes part of the decade, the film attempts to have thematic resonance instead of just being a raunchy comedy or slasher death fest. But it lacks the originality and sincerity of the Hughes oeuvre.

The film contains a few rewarding moments. Ronald’s confusion of American Bandstand and a PBS program on African culture still leads to big laughs. Fans of teen movies will notice a number of 1980s and 1990s denizens of the genre, including Courtney Gains, Max Perlich, Seth Green, and Ami Dolenz. And the ending showing Ronald and Cindy heading off into the sunset on a riding lawn mower has become iconic.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these bright spots to overcome the difficulties with the movie. And, as appealing as the performances are, they can only go so far to elevate a problematic story.

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