Cha-ching Fling

Love Don't Cost a Thing registers as antithetical teen comedy.

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Love Don't Cost a Thing Opens Friday.
Think remake of that nonseminal '80s nonclassic, Can't Buy Me Love.
Think remake of that nonseminal '80s nonclassic, Can't Buy Me Love.
If this planet still sustains human life in 2023, it might be vaguely interesting to see whether today's teenagers will flock to revival transmissions of the high school comedy Love Don't Cost a Thing. Perhaps, if human reproduction outside of a government-enforced lottery remains legal, they'll invite their kids to join in the nostalgia, just as Western thirtysomethings of today may long to share the escapist teen fantasies of the Reagan era. For after all, this movie is based on one of those.

Yes, with a few tweaks to render it "urban" (a weird euphemism meaning, roughly, "after the fashion of contemporary African Americans" -- thus Don't instead of Doesn't), this project is a remake of that nonseminal '80s nonclassic, Can't Buy Me Love. This critic was too busy in 1987 to bother with John Hughes knockoffs, but apparently the plot is approximately the same: Dork rents bimbo, dork becomes hipster, dork-hipster misrepresents, lessons are learned, producers pay off mortgages.

The miracle is that, even though this movie is blatantly dedicated to fleecin' da kidz, it's cute enough to pass, thanks largely to director Troy Beyer, who also lends her giddy hand to Michael Swerdlick's rewritten screenplay. Replacing Patrick Dempsey in the dork role is game Nick Cannon (Drumline), who's one of those 22-year-old high school seniors joining the proud ranks of such veterans as Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy. Cannon plays Alvin, uncool student by day, bumbling pool-cleaner by trade, and brilliant automotive engineer by some bizarre genetic crapshoot. He jovially pals around with his dorky auto-shop posse (Kenan Thompson, Kal Penn, Kevin Christy), but it's clear that, despite the souped-up jalopy (complete with Hollywood-approved Mac laptop), both life and local girls are granting them no favors.

In some zanier product placement involving the hideous Cadillac Escalade and the Jerry's Deli chain of LA-based hydrogenated-oil purveyors, Alvin gets his shot at becoming sexay. There's a girl named Paris (Christina Milian) who is -- surprise! -- wealthy, shallow, and thoroughly unlikable; thus, naturally, working-class Alvin falls for her. This is sad, as she fancies herself a pop star, posturing with a pretty new guitar that will never put forth a note of soul. The girl's strongest attachments in life are to her Pomeranian, her three cell phones and her cheating b-ball b-boy, but when she gently dents mommy's Caddy outside the apparently thrilling eatery, Alvin makes his move. Within about a minute of screen time, he has put forth $1500 of his hard-earned cash and personally repaired the lazily nonexistent "damage" for Paris, but with a catch: She must agree to be seen around with him as if she actually likes him, for two weeks.

That contrivance makes the adventures of Long Duk Dong seem Dickensian in their gritty plausibility, but on it goes, through basketball games, awkward lunch hours, even an open-mic night. Paris's closest fashion-victim friends are basically a couple of ill-tempered female abdomens (Nichole Robinson, Melissa Schuman), and they fully despise Alvin, until suddenly they can't wait to suckle him. See, as Paris gradually shares the methodology of being shallow and stupid, Alvin evolves from being a "big phat zero" to being "Al," something of a babe-magnet playa -- and that's not to say a "beach" in Spanish (although his inevitable social downfall occurs on one). Plotwise, you know exactly what you think would happen? That's what happens.

Yet somehow, in the midst of this formulaic mire, Beyer has produced a string of reasonably lively moments. Two decades down the line, this SoCal-based tale may serve as something like the Fast Times at Ridgemont High of the season, though if one is not a dumb, ab-obsessed teen, it is very hard to say. What can be said is that Beyer drops a lot of funk and sex and humor into the remix -- gone is the Beatles tune of the original, replaced by an opening track boasting the lyric, "I just like the fact that your tushie is big" -- and her approach struts along not unpleasantly. In particular, Steve Harvey as Alvin's old-school funkster dad steals the show. He overdoes the condom lesson, mugs constantly, and blinds us with his huge pearly-whites, but he's funny and centered, with a sweet, teen-movie gravity that makes one hope he's on a bowling team with Paul Dooley.

Beyer litters her film with the amusing (Alvin's sweaty butt lifted off his family's tacky vinyl sofa), the disturbing (the token white dork's romantic prize appears to be a she-male), and the flat-out puzzling (kids still do the "Humpty Dance"?). But it's too bad that the director of Let's Talk About Sex appears to be stuffing her feathers into somebody else's dusty old hat. With a whiff of logic, this story's thesis disintegrates, as it illustrates that "love" in fact costs a hell of a lot. And given the nature of their arrangement, Alvin and Paris never really rise above being pathetic caricatures, which ultimately proves much more sad than funny. When she announces to him, "We still have a lot of time to pretend we're friends," one only hopes she's not speaking for her entire generation.

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