Time to hop on the back of that mower again. Directed by Steve Rash ('The Buddy Holly Story'), 'Can't Buy Me Love' was released in the summer of 1987. The film was originally titled 'Boy Rents Girl'. While its use of the ubiquitous Beatles tune as title and theme song seems a dubious choice, it's a credit to the film's producers that they managed to acquire those rights, for which they paid $125,000. (And here's a little trivia: in order to get permission to use the song, the movie had to be taken to Neverland Ranch and shown to Michael Jackson, who owned the song's publishing rights.) The song's usage was a sign of the times. Early Beatles hits were all the rage in the mid-80’s. ‘Twist and Shout' was used to great effect the year prior in what’s widely considered John Hughes' masterpiece, 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'. Here are some reasons why 'Can't Buy Me Love' is an underrated 80's classic.
While we may never see 'Can't Buy Me Love' appear on any 'most underrated films' lists, the film does accomplish everything it sets out to achieve and deserves a better rating. One early assessment skewed its position to this day: Roger Ebert gave the film a scathing review (and a half-star) upon its release, based on the notion that the heartfelt film had negative intent; Ebert's critiques of comedies in later years were far more lenient. The New York Times' review of the film was considerably more favorable. While John Hughes' oeuvre maintains its status and dignity (rightfully so), 'Can't Buy Me Love' is more worthwhile than indicated by those initial reviews.
Ronald Miller is tired of being a high school outcast, and he's sick of playing cards and drinking root beer every weekend with his nerdy pals. He wants his senior year to be more exciting and special. While the budding astronomer spends his summers mowing lawns to save and scrape together the money he needs to buy a powerful telescope, his only distraction tends to be gazing adoringly at the most popular girl in school, Cindy Mancini. But the painful reality remains: she is much too far from his grasp. (Ronald's best friend Kenneth is quick to remind Ronald that even the 'cool kids' Cindy Mancini hangs out with are not in her league.)
One fateful day, Cindy wears her mother's (awful; no, really, it's horrible) white suede outfit, without permission, to impress her friends at a party. Cheap red wine inevitably splashes across her path, and she's off to the mall to beg for an untainted duplicate. The outfit costs $1000. Ronald is across the way, paying for his telescope, in cash. Also $1000. He sees a damsel in distress (his damsel.) He offers to help, but it will cost her. She'll have to help him. Cindy: 'Just going out with me is not going to make you popular.' Ronald: 'Well, I have a thousand dollars that says it will.' It's an inspired idea. One that shouldn't be dismissed as tawdry. These are nice enough kids. Ronald wants a chance to alter his image for his senior year; Cindy doesn't want to disappoint her mother. Both realize over the course of the film that they care for one another, deeply. If it weren't for Ronald's strange proposition, they would never have known. Film critics like Roger Ebert were much too punishing about the meaning of this premise. It actually is a somewhat plausible story about a couple of teenagers with $1000 at stake in a Tucson mall in 1987, and it's a good 1980's teen comedy-romance movie premise.
RONALD'S PLAN IS VISIONARY
Initial reviews of 'Can't Buy Me Love' also questioned whether Ronald's desire and plan to be popular is what weakens the film––as in, why does Ronald, a kind, intelligent individual, even bother wanting to be part of the popular clique? There is no actual value in belonging to high school cliques, in the grand scheme of things. But they do exist. Ronald feels like he does not quite fit in with the nerds who have been his long-term friends. He knows he could fit in with the popular kids (or perhaps any group of his choosing), if given the chance.
While this type of ambition––and resourceful approach––is appreciated in business and in life, Ronald's social climbing is scoffed at within the film. It's also scoffed at by the film's audience, and by its critics. But is this fair? The courageousness of Ronald's entirely individual, unsupported vision and decision to climb the popularity ladder could be admired. He should discover for himself whether being popular is all that it's cracked up to be––and in this particular school, it absolutely isn't (the jocks and cheerleaders are as dumb, and as mean, as all get out.) Still, as a scientist, Ronald has every right to want to experiment with the notion of his own potential for popularity and study the results for himself. Just as he views and tries to understand the stars in the sky, he's also looked around his school for nearly his entire run; he has seen that the 'stars' of his school are not as cool as he could be. And he's right about that. He knows who he is. Which makes him a leader in a school of wanna-be's and followers. That's what makes his quick rise in rank completely plausible. Cindy Mancini and her friends (and we, the audience) are expected to see Ronald's latching onto Cindy as the sole reason for his ascent. But Cindy Mancini is simply the catalyst for a rise he'd already envisioned and established for himself. Simply put, Ronald Miller is a visionary.
AT ITS CORE
Consider three of John Hughes' best teen films: 'The Breakfast Club', 'Pretty in Pink' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'. Each has a story that takes place on the surface while a more poignant 'core story' is being told. On the surface, 'The Breakfast Club' is about five high schoolers from varying cliques spending one Saturday together in detention; its core story is about teenage alienation––and how the adults' expectations on still-forming individuals can make their journey more challenging. 'Pretty in Pink' is about class warfare in high school as told from the perspective of a poor girl falling for a rich boy; the core story, however, is that Andie and her father are still reeling from having been deserted by Andie's mother; Andie's issues with the 'richies' at school are an extension of her working to establish a sense of value for herself. And 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' is not about Ferris Bueller, or Sloane Peterson; the core story is about Cameron Frye, a high school senior wired so tight from having a father who cares less about him than material possessions (i.e. a car), he frequently gets sick and stays home from school. His best friend Ferris decides to do him some good by providing a fun-filled day off, allowing him a chance to release his demons. Ferris is simply the catalyst for Cameron's coming to terms with his pain, so that he may finally be free from it. (Some critics have complained that Ferris Bueller is a selfish sociopath; I disagree, as he is more like an illusive fairy bringing zaniness to those around him; Ferris might as well be Cameron's cold-medication induced hallucination.)
We can also better appreciate 'Can't Buy Me Love' through a similar lens. On the surface, 'Can't Buy Me Love' (or "Boy Rents Girl') has a simple premise: due to his quick thinking, at just the right moment, inconsequential nerd Ronald Miller manages to pay influential popular girl Cindy Mancini to hang out with him for a month in order to get the 'cool kids' to accept him into their world. But the core story is more meaningful. Ronald is a smart, insightful teenager with a scientific mind; he has a sense of self-worth, which in turn makes him an appealing and confident person. And how many 'nerds' have simply been misunderstood? Perhaps if given the chance to express themselves they, too, would be popular. Ronald's story is about an individual being free to determine his or her place in the world. 'Can't Buy Me Love' is an anti-bullying, anti-discrimination story. It's one that's meant to inspire the Ronald Millers of the world to believe in themselves. (And I challenge anyone to watch the scene in the third act in which Ronald Miller boldly defends his friend Kenneth from the jock bullies—while delivering a rousing speech on how they all used to be friends in grade school—and not get teary-eyed.)
THE AIRPLANE GRAVEYARD
One of the most memorable scenes in 'Can't Buy Me Love' takes place at 'The Boneyard', or the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group. Ronald decides to surprise Cindy for the 'final official date' of their agreement by taking her there. To him, the site is a sacred place. This establishes how varied his passions are; they are not just limited to astronomy. It also establishes how much he has come to care for Cindy beyond her looks and status. He now appreciates her for her mind, and he wants to share this experience with her. The scene examines Cindy's depth, as well; she'd already shared her love of writing poetry with Ronald, and any romantic feelings she has developed for him are deepened during that visit.
Meanwhile, the scene manages to provide us with a stronger sense of setting: Tuscon, Arizona has a low-humity climate, which is why the city's facility was chosen to house the retired planes. The best films always manage to bring characters and settings to life, a life that extends beyond the limited screen time we spend with the story. 'Can't Buy Me Love' accomplishes that with a number of similarly thoughtful and fleshed-out scenes.
Several 'Can't Buy Me Love' cast mates have enjoyed career longevity; one (most surprisingly) has not. Amanda Peterson is wonderful, and believable, as the incredibly popular girl who is a closet romantic. While her performance is as inspired as Patrick Dempsey's, Peterson did not remain in Hollywood for very long. Her absence has struck a chord with 'Can't Buy Me Love' viewers and it has distressed her fans, many of whom have played detective online in recent years to track down her story and whereabouts. Aside from Peterson's star turn in the film, Dempsey (a race car driver who remains a TV star) is excellent as Ronald Miller (one could even say he IS Ronald Miller, still) and Dempsey has expressed deep fondness for the career-making role. His friend Kenneth ('You shit on my house!') was played with poignancy by Courtney Gains, a steadily working actor. Gains is also remembered for playing Malachai in the 80's classic 'Children of the Corn'. Seth Green plays Ronald's bratty little brother; Green has also worked steadily since CBML (one standout role being his turn in the 'Austin Powers' films) and today, he continues to capitalize on that same bratty humor with his animated show (and cult favorite) 'Robot Chicken'. Other supporting players include Paula Abdul, who famously choreographed the dance sequences in 'Can't Buy Me Love', and Gerardo Mejia, who plays a football player in the film; Mejia was later known for the 1991 hit 'Rico Suave'.