“Ronald Is Making an Investment in His Senior Year”: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Part 14: Can't Buy Me Love, a.k.a. Proof that not every teen film belongs in the canon.

Movies Features Can't Buy Me Love
“Ronald Is Making an Investment in His Senior Year”: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

“Just no. NO!” Grace was physically squirming within two minutes of the opening credits rolling, and I had a feeling we were not going to make it through the film.

“Grace, come on.”

“Can we please watch Game of Thrones?”

“Yes, but if you don’t watch this first I won’t warn you when Theon Greyjoy’s going to get tortured.”

Fine. But this is just embarrassing.”

“Which part?”

“All the parts.”

“You know, I’ve never actually seen this movie.”

“You haven’t?” That intrigued her enough to get her to keep her butt in the chair. She wanted to see how I would react.

“Spoiler alert, though: Patrick Dempsey becomes really hot as a grownup.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I showed her a “Dr. McDreamy” headshot.

“Oh. Huh. Weird.”

Can’t Buy Me Love, directed by Steve Rash and released in 1987, was never on my radar at the time; it looked like a poor man’s Some Kind of Wonderful, and that’s a mouthful. Nerdy Ronald Miller, a newly minted senior at a high school outside Tucson, yearns for a more A-list life, and (because plot points) gets it by paying a cheerleader neighbor to pretend to date him for a month. The plot works. He becomes Teen McDreamy, gets an anti-makeover where he trades his authenticity, his real friends, and basically his soul for Cool Status. Spoiler alert: this ends up causing some serious problems, not the least of which is that he has become blind to the fact that the girl who’s fake dating him actually likes him, but becomes grossed out by his newfound shallowness. Hah! The ironies. Ultimately there is redemption, and a showdown, and the cute girl liking him for who he really is, and forgiveness, and riding into the sunset on a lawnmower.

“So, what would you say is this film’s biggest problem?” I asked Grace.


“Can you be more specific?”

“How can I narrow that down? The entire movie is stupid, with like four moments of Cute. The movie could have been clever. It could have been a satire. It could have been social commentary like The Simpsons about the absurd amount of pressure kids feel to fit into a system that’s idiotic in the first place. It could have turned into a deep love story. Any of those things would have been okay. Potentially great, even. The premise isn’t bad. Nerdy kid is so desperate to fit in that he pays a popular girl to pretend to love him, and everything goes nuts? Nothing wrong with that! So many opportunities, actually.”

“Did you ever see Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?

Grace’s eyes went dinner plate for a second. “Oh, my God, do you think it was in response to this piece of crap?”

“No idea, and that wasn’t even where I was going. I was just going to say it gets at some of those satirical and goofball elements, but it’s at a remove because they’re not teenagers anymore.”

“But … Arizona. All the popular kids are mindless dipshits, the nerds are nerdy without any special redeeming features, and … wow, it would actually be cool if this movie was the inspiration for Romy and Michele.

“Cool enough to justify this film’s existence?”

“This is a terrible movie,” Grace said. “When it’s not being stupid, it’s being embarrassing, with a couple of thirty-second exceptions. It’s not a movie about shallow people; it’s just a shallow movie.”

“I don’t disagree.”

“Is the next one going to be cooler?”

“One thousand percent,” I said. “The next one has a time machine.”

“Would that time machine by any chance be a souped-up DeLorean?”

“It would.”

“Thank God. Game of Thrones?”

“Sure. And I’ll warn you before anyone gets flayed or dismembered.”

“So much Stupid,” Grace said, wonderingly. “So very much Stupid.”

Amy Glynn writes for Paste. Her editor wanted to see just how bad her daughter would consider Can’t Buy Me Love. Mission accomplished.

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