This teen makeover movie has had a makeover of its own, updating the durably popular 1987 hit Can’t Buy Me Love, the one where brainy-but-unpopular Patrick Dempsey unforgettably teaches the kids the Anteater Ritual dance and they think it is cool.
I suppose every generation is entitled to its own “boy pays girl to make him popular” movie. So, once again, it’s time for a nerdy teenager who dreams of popularity to learn that what really matters is being true to yourself, only this time the story is hip-hopped up with with an African-American cast using Hollywood’s idea of cool slang and wearing Sean John sweats, and a denouement in the bleachers of a high school basketball court. Unfortunately, what could have been a slam-dunk of a film quickly becomes an air ball. It is painful to observe. Silly, even dumb would have been okay (see the original). But this movie is awkward and unpleasant, even smarmy, particularly offensive in a movie for this age group.
The protagonist’s little sister at one point says “Urkel’s gone gangster” (referring to geek-hero Steve Urkel from ‘90’s TV staple, “Family Matters”) and that sums up the plot pretty fairly. Alvin Johnson (Nick Cannon) is the engineer-to-be who, unsatisfied with his nerdy reputation and his fellow outcast friends, takes dramatic steps to become popular in his last months in high school. Alvin has saved up enough cleaning pools to buy a key part in the engine he is building to win a contest which would result in a full scholarship for college.
Meanwhile, Paris Morgan (Christina Milan) is the most popular girl in the class and is dating an NBA rookie who just graduated from their high school. After she crashes her mom’s SUV, Paris finds she needs exactly the same amount of money to fix the car as Alvin has saved up to finishing building one. In comes Sir Alvin in his shiny armor to solve Paris’ problems for the small cost of popularity: she must pretend to date Alvin for two weeks.
Paris soon transforms Alvin into “Al”, who dresses in expensive clothes and hangs out on the “Elite” corridor at school. As in the earlier version and just about every other movie set in a high school, popularity is instantly confered. Gradually, Paris and Al become friends, each finding strength in the other’s advice and support. But power goes to Alvin’s head and he jeopardizes everything –- including his friendships and his scholarship -— when he places his newly found popularity above all else.
This otherwise mediocre bit of cinematic fluff adds some painfully inappropriate plot devices that bring what little energy the movie to a crashing halt. The most clumsy scenes are between Alvin and his family but the ones between Alvin and his friends and the ones between Alvin and everyone else are not much better. The only scenes which seem unforced and natural are when Alvin and Paris are on their own, only because of Christina Milan. At one point, while Cannon, who seems to have left all his talent on the set of Drumline, is wildly overacting, Milan has to tell him how to get a reputation as a player by giving him tips on how to treat women badly. She manages with charm and even some dignity.
Troy Beyer’s awkward direction is another distraction. She shoots the big “son, no matter what, I’ve always been proud of you” scene lit from below as if Alvin and his father had accidentally wandered onto the set of a Spielberg movie. Beyer worked with Michael Swerdlick (who wrote the screenplay for Can’t Buy Me Love) on the update, so both must take the blame for the dialogue. Even the final “love me as I am” scene when Alvin declares who he is to the applause of the crowd falls flat.
Parents should know that there are plenty of flinch-inducing situations, many of them between Alvin and his father. Steve Harvey seems intent on appropriating and expanding Eugene Levy’s role as the uncomfortably understanding father in the American Pie movies. In his desire to relive his own adolescence as a Don Juan, Al’s father pressures his son to have sex without any regard to his son’s emotional maturity or to the strength of the relationship his son might have. The most painful of these scenes involves Mr. Johnson demonstrating how to put a condom on a bottle with one hand while keeping the attention of an imaginary girlfriend. While scenes like this one might work in Harvey’s stand-up comedy routines (including some of the finer segments in Spike Lee’s Original Kings of Comedy, for mature viewers), it is entirely inappropriate and downright seedy for the intended audience for this movie.
Even worse, young men are repeatedly told that they should be players, not respecting their female counterparts as people but seeing them instead as objects. Finally, as with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the movie seems to buy into a high school notion of metit, with a person’s worth measured by who they are dating and which expensive labels they wear.
Families should discuss Paris’ view on popularity. They might also want to discuss why Paris was unable to express her aspiration to be more than “an NBA wife” and why her friends might resist the idea of her wanting to be something beyond their ken, such as becoming a songwriter. How does the relationship between Alvin and his father change over the course of the movie?
Families who enjoy this movie should see the original, Can’t Buy Me Love, a Saturday afternoon cable classic, which is by no means a work of art, but which is a nice relic of the 80’s and has much more heart than its imitator.
For those who enjoyed the message that the insiders and the outsiders are all essentially the same (makeovers or not) and that the most important thing is that you have to be yourself – then you can draw from the cornucopia of teen flicks sporting this motif including: Never Been Kissed; 10 Things I Hate About You; She’s All That; Save The Last Dance; Drive Me Crazy; Clueless; Bring it On; Pretty in Pink; Breakfast Club; Sixteen Candles; Say Anything; and pretty much anything directed by John Hughes.