Ronald Miller is a Jerk
DIRECTED BY STEVE RASH/1987
A nerd and a popular kid winding up in love is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 80s teen movie tropes). But never has the nerd been so entirely unsympathetic as in Can’t Buy Me Love. I remember seeing this movie shortly after its release and, God help me, I think I enjoyed it. Rewatching it now, it’s hard to express how intensely how I disliked the central character, a skinny geek pining for popularity who turns into an ass the moment he gets it.
Ronald Miller has saved his lawn mowing money all summer so that he can buy a telescope. He’s a scrawny, bushy haired kid who is part of his high school’s “nerd herd”. Cindy Mancini, on the other hand, is a golden haired beauty, the head cheerleader at the same Tuscon school. After she sneaks off to a party in her mother’s favorite white, bikini-topped, fringed suede outfit (it’s a bold look) and winds up with it covered in wine, Cindy is desperate to replace the outfit before her misdeed is discovered. Ronald, who is telescope shopping at the mall just across from where fine leather goods are sold, sees opportunity in Cindy’s distress and offers her $1000 to pretend to date him for a month. He reasons that her popularity will rub off on him. She’s desperate enough to take the deal.
The narrative arc of Can’t Buy Me Love is predictable enough. After initially being embarrassed by Ronald, Cindy warms up to him. With the help of a standard teen movie makeover, Ronald goes from “geek to chic” and suddenly has Ferris Buehler levels of popularity. But alas, it all goes to his head. He must learn important lessons about the meaningless of popularity. Which is fine, I guess, but Can’t Buy Me Love goes hard on just how little this new Ronald cares for the feelings of others – which makes you wonder if old Ronald was always a jerk, too, who just had less power to make others suffer.
Consider. As soon as Ronald gets a whiff of popularity he dumps his loyal friends, including his best bud, Kenneth (Coutney Gains of Children of the Corn). Kenneth is hurt by being repeatedly blown off by Ronald but tries to be patient and understanding right up until the night that Ronald shows up with his new friends (all football players) to egg Kenneth’s house on Halloween. Ronald knows whose house it is, but unwilling to disappoint the bros, Ronald throws a bag of dog feces against Kenneth’s front door. Kenneth catches him, but in an act of mercy let’s Ronald run off before the police show up. This is some stone cold cruel behavior from Ronald. If only the script didn’t somehow make it comic by having the wounded Kenneth shout, tearfully (and repeatedly), “You shit on my house!” later in the movie.
As for Ronald’s treatment of Cindy, it’s just as bad. Instead of the dignified fake breakup she suggests, he humiliates her in front of the other popular students, immediately starts sleeping with her friends, and at what must surely be his low point, plagiarizes one of Cindy’s love poems to use in his seduction of another classmate, Iris, in a bathroom at a party. It’s deeply gross and contemptable. Later at the party the cash-for-popularity scheme is revealed and Ronald again becomes an outcast. He is weepy and self pitying and honestly, I didn’t think he got half of the comeuppance he deserved. Cindy is far too quick to forgive. Itt would have been a happier ending if she’d ridden away with her friends leaving Ronald forever alone on his riding mower. Alas, she and Ronald reconcile,
Really, the problem is not only Ronald. There’s a cold heart inside Cant Buy Me Love and Cindy seems to be the only character with a moral compass. Preying upon a young woman’s desperation in order to buy her company is a hardly an innovation with Ronald Miller (see also Pretty Woman), but it’s grim hearing Ronald’s old friends discussing what a bargain his four months of popularity turned out to be. “$250 a month for those cheerleaders is a good deal,” one of them says admiringly.
On the upside, Can’t Buy Me Love has one of the most appealing teen female leads of it’s era. The late 80s, as evidenced here, was a time of big perms, big shoulder pads, big accessories – but Amanda Peterson, as Cindy Mancini, remains a fresh faced beauty, genuinely appealing (although the suede outfit was a questionable choice). I wondered, rewatching Can’t Buy Me Love, why we didn’t see more of Peterson. Why did it seem like she peaked in this film? As it turns out, she left Hollywood in 1994 and returned to her hometown in Colorado. She’d started acting at 9, appearing the 1982 version of Annie, but life in Hollywood wasn’t kind. She was raped at 15, a fact her parents revealed after Peterson died of a drug overdose in 2015, at 43. It’s a terrible ending to her story, but what little pleasure there is to be found in watching Can’t Buy Me Love comes from Peterson’s warm, intelligent performance.
Note Seth Green as Ronald’s wisecracking little brother. Also note that in one scene he is wearing a Bill the Cat shirt. Nice 80s pop culture reference.
Most Typical Teen Movie Moment: A newly enlightened Ronald gives a rousing speech during lunch on the futility of seeking popularity and the school caste system, which is met by a slow clap started by the football players. Everyone has learned a very valuable lesson.