Director: Steve Rash
Writer: Michael Swerdlick
Cinematographer: Peter Lyons Collister
by Jon Cvack
Can’t Buy Me Love is another film that probably seemed harmless enough when it came out and yet as women’s rights progress and their depiction in mass media follows, it’s only when you watch these 80s guy-geared Rom Coms that you really understand how far we’ve come. Similar to License to Drive ('88) and Animal House, the film contains an abundance of misogyny. The more I look at these films the more I realize that cinema’s liberalization during the Reagan era really allowed for dude-centric 80s films to objectify women in awful ways.
Nevertheless, as you accept what’s going on, you realize that 90s/early 00s Rom Coms were heavily inspired by these moments, except with the added caveat that they centered around strong women who, in the end, during a moment of epiphany, realize that what’s missing most from their life can be cured by having a guy (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, etc…). I still give them an A for effort. At least they were moving the bar forward.
Can’t Buy Me Love revolves around a ‘nerd’ looking guy, Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey), who if the actor didn’t reveal it already, is actually really handsome once he takes off his glasses. Ronald has been in love with his Head Cheerleader neighbor, Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson), who of course hasn’t given him the time of day ever in her life. That all changes when Ronald is about to take all his $1500 of lawn cutting money to buy a state of the art telescope, then sees Cindy at the mall, distraught after having had wine spilled all over her mother’s $1000 satin dress that she stole (it was during this moment that the first element of misogynistic cringiness came into play when her single mom invited a date over and the man makes highly suggestive, if not completely obvious hints, about what he’d like to do to the daughter, while the camera acts as his POV, looking her up and down. The fact that a man who’s about 50ish is making no-so-subtle comments to a woman who is very likely underage [the movie takes place at the beginning of the school year, making Cindy at most 18], while the mother is forced to just accept his comments just goes to show sexist humor’s evolution). Her mom then leaves Cindy home alone who uses the opportunity to borrow the mom’s expensive dress. This all then leads to the another episode of archaic tropes where Cindy, who has no money, must rely on Ronald’s $1000 generosity, which he only offers in exchange for Cindy pretending to be his girlfriend for a month.
Not knowing anything about the movie, I was actually surprised that Ronald sufficiently integrates himself into the popular crowd, though I’m not really sure where the story would have gone if this didn’t happen. I just assumed it was going to center around him and his fellow ‘nerdy’ friends somehow working to get Cindy back. Instead the story does a pretty good job of exploring high school power structures. I recall my high school days, and how so many events felt so important when they were really insignificant, if not completely ridiculous. Ronald’s best friend, Kenneth Wurman (Courtney Gains) is jealous over his friend’s departure, especially after a particularly awkward scene where Ronald is egged on by the jocks during some late night mischief and throws a bag of shit at his best friend Kenneth’s door, which then leads Kenneth to really display his acting prowess by confronting Ronald about the incident.
When the month is finally up, Ronald and Cindy break up, both not knowing the other is actually into the other person (this was also unrealistic; Cindy should have known Ronald was into her after offering the $1000 when they’ve never really met, though I guess you could say she was embarrassed and the act he put on didn’t assist with the process). Any way - Ronald then gets acquainted with Cindy’s other two friends, who in classic 80s fashion - and thanks to Wet Hot American Summer - look about 32 years old. They have no substance whatsoever, motivated by nothing other than wanting to bone the most popular guy in school. In fact, as I’m writing this I can’t differentiate between the two, as they looked and acted so similar. This sets off a boiling kettle, which culminates in Cindy pounding vodka at a party, and in a drunken stupor, reveals that Ronald actually rented her as his girlfriend. Instantly, and I mean instantly, everyone hates Ronald again. Usually I can stomach some narrative embellishment (such as their break up), but this really made no sense. I’ve had experiences where people drunk out of their minds castigate another person and it always makes the drunk look far worse than the person they’re criticizing. More simply, I’m just not sure why anyone would believe Cindy. It seems like there could have been a better way for this classic High School Rom-Com trope - The Tipping Point - to have been carried out.
I was surprised that in the end Cindy so easily went back to Ronald. Then again, Ronald is an incredibly attractive guy. Nevertheless, it’s rare for those 80s power structures to merge between the two classes. Typically the nerd overcomes the jock, or the jock ends up getting the girl and a lesson in humility is learned. I suppose that the film needed some type of progressive, redeeming quality.
Special Note: One of the most cringey moments that 80s Rom Coms all have is the gratuitous women’s locker room scene, which typically serves no purpose other than to show fully or half high school girls, many who you can safely assume are underage, in their underwear. It’s no surprise that this has been ditched. The more I come across these in films I’ve never seen the more I feel voyeuristic and gross. I often wonder when these were unofficially ruled to be distasteful and left out. I’m guessing somewhere in the 80s.
BELOW: The classic teen rom-com party scene where the truth comes out (however unrealistic it is)
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