Can’t Buy Me Love is the best teen movie of the 1980s. There, I said it. I know The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles both perfectly encapsulated the torturous high school experience. Cameron Crowe’s lovely Say Anything. . . gave us a boom box, a Peter Gabriel renaissance and a pen. I don’t care. Can’t Buy Me Love, which just turned 30, tops them all.
Originally titled Boy Rents Girl, the low-budget comedy centers on Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey), a high school nerd in Arizona who longs to be popular. He gets his chance when Cindy Mancini, the captain of the cheerleading squad (Amanda Peterson), gets red wine all over her mom’s awesome new $1000 fringe white suede outfit. She’s desperate to fix the situation. Ronald offers her the money to replace it on the condition that he poses as her boyfriend for the first month of senior year. She agrees. Her friends buy it. Alas, Ronald learns that money can buy popularity but it can’t. . . .
When Can’t Buy Me Love was released in August 1987, adult critics sniped that the film’s entire budget was blown on obtaining the rights to the Beatles song, and nothing was left over for a solid script and cast. I beg to differ. Take out the borderline-inappropriate fashion (Cindy’s friend wears a sports bra to class, NBD), and the movie holds up just as well as the John Hughes classics. Teen cliques still run rampant. Students long to belong. I’m not convinced every student is a princess, an athlete, a princess, a brain and a criminal. But Ronald’s climactic declaration in the class-divided cafeteria that “cools, nerds, your side, my side, man it’s all bullshit — it’s just tough enough to be yourself” is eternally true.
So let’s throw a party at Big John’s house and celebrate. In honor of the movie’s 30-year anniversary, here are five more reasons why Can’t Buy Me Love is totally chic. Please tell me you understand that pun.
1. Patrick Dempsey Is McDorky — And It Works
You know what? It’s easy to crush on Patrick Dempsey when he’s playing a dashing doctor in Grey’s Anatomy or a Manhattan man about town in Sweet Home Alabama. He has a full head of hair. His body filled out. In Can’t Buy Me Love, he’s a bespectacled science nerd with no discernible muscle definition. And yet he’s utterly believable as the romantic leading man who goes from totally geek to totally chic. You can see why Cyndi falls for him. Dempsey was an acting nobody at the time. This remains his most endearing role — and I’m pretty positive he knows it. Proof: I screened Can’t Buy Me Love at my 35th birthday party some years ago. The actor was nice enough to autograph an original movie poster. Check out this inscription. . . .
2. The African Anteater Ritual Holds Up!
Dirty Dancing also premiered during the summer of 1987. Still can’t do The Lift. But every ‘80s kid knows how to do the goofy African Anteater Ritual. Ronald — in his king status “Ronnie” phase — memorized the moves via a TV show to impress his date at the Columbus Day dance. He thought he was watching American Bandstand; he was really watching PBS. It’s all hilarious until you check the credits and realize that the Can’t Buy Me Love choreographer was former Laker Girl Paula Abdul. That’s straight-up legit.
3. Nobody’s Cooler Than Cindy Mancini
From Regina George to Natalie Sands, onscreen high school queen bees are almost always ruthless snobs. Amanda Peterson’s fantastic portrayal of Cindy is a rare exception. She rules because she carries herself with quiet confidence to spare. She’ll approach a new girl at the party, no problem. The beauty of Cindy is that she also realizes — and admits — popularity is a job that needs constant maintenance. I guarantee that your homecoming queen was not this self-aware. And to think that Peterson was just 16 when during filming! There’s a maturity beyond her years in the performance. Given the actress’ tragic decline and death, how melancholic to watch her be so young and vibrant.
4. The Soundtrack Is Weird in a Good Way
No Kenny Loggins? No problem! The eclectic Can’t Buy Me Love song list features a lost classic from the Cutting Crew (“One for the Mockingbird”), a true ‘80s one-hit wonder (“Living in a Box”) and a song written by future TV mega-producer Chuck Lorre (“French Kissing”). Best of all, Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” is prominently featured during a crucial scene at the end of the second act, uh-oh-oh-oh. Also, see: title of movie. The 1964 No. 1 hit is heard twice.
5. We Can’t Find the Cast
Dempsey, check. We know what happened to Peterson. Seth Green played Dempsey’s twerpy younger brother. Beyond that, I’m ready to contact Keith Morrison so he can launch a full investigation on Can’t Buy Me Love’s young cast. IMDB just isn’t cutting it. Courtney Gains (Kenneth) was something named Roach on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Tina Caspary (Barbara) hasn’t been spotted since My Mom’s a Werewolf in 1989. Darcy DeMoss (Patsy) was apparently in Sharknado 3 and a bunch of soft-core porn movies?! Oy. Maybe it’s for the best: This way, we can choose to remember the group as fresh-faced teens. Of course, there is one amazing update: Gerardo Mejia (Ricky) went to “sing” the hit “Rico Suave” in 1991. The song’s producer, Jimmy Iovine, told Howard Stern in June that Gerardo recently contacted him because his beauty queen daughter is now in the business. Can’t Buy Me Love: The Next Generation, anyone?
Also published on Medium.