'Love Don't Cost': In-Crowd Control

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2003

"Love Don't Cost a Thing" proves that the meek may indeed inherit the Earth. All they have to do is turn monstrous.

The movie takes the highly thought of 1987 teen life comedy "Can't Buy Me Love" and translates its events and its meanings to a 21st-century environment, a multiculti, hip-hop-driven Los Angeles high school. But it's the same old story, a fight for love and cliques.

The story, originated in '87 by Michael Swerdlick, who still gets a co-screenwriter credit in this production, involves a nerd, desperately bitter over his relegation to the outer limits of the uncool set, who finds himself with a unique leverage over the school's hottest, most popular girl. He agrees to get her out of a jam ('87: She ruined suede pantsuit and he had the replacement money; '03: She cracked up her mom's SUV and he has the money for parts and the skills to make repairs) if she will pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. She doesn't have to like him, she doesn't even have to snuggle with him, she doesn't have to . . . well, you get it. All she has to do is validate him in the murderous whirlpools of the high school social system.

She does, and two developments quickly ensue. The first is that, in close contact with him by necessity of her agreement, she realizes he's basically a decent guy and even begins to develop affection for him. The second is that he takes his new stage-managed stardom too seriously, and instead of masquerading as a cool guy and oppressor of the wimps, he becomes a cool guy and an oppressor of the wimps -- his former friends.

I can't recall the original, or even if I saw it or not. But this variation certainly makes its points effectively, in what must be a more superheated milieu. The most interesting aspect, however, is that for the director, Troy Beyer, we now live in what might be called a post-racial America. White and black intermingle commonly on the playground and the classroom, without animosity. How nice. A world without animosity?

Heck no. I didn't say that, and neither does she. No, the animosity in high school, same as it ever was, is between classes of coolness. The jocks run the place, so completely that those ungifted with hand-eye coordination or strength are exiled from the stands and from the main hallway. The athletes' tyranny is complete, and multiracial.

As for the cast, Nick Cannon, who starred in "Drumline," plays Alvin, the pool boy and automotive genius who wants to count. But he is so meek in the beginning, it's hard to notice that he's there. We don't feel his agony to the degree that we should, and the kids who are his friends are so likable, we wonder what his problem is. When his character becomes cool, Cannon fares a little better.

I have a problem with Christina Milian, who plays Paris, the popular girl: She is extremely sexualized by Beyer. Hot sweaters, low-cut pants, booty going bonkers. When she does a cheerleader routine, I felt like I was at a strip club. Uncomfortable. Maybe that's the way it is these days, but to me, it just seems sad.

The movie does have one outstanding comic turn, when Steve Harvey, casually hilarious as Cannon's clueless dad, tries to explain to him how to put on a condom. That's also kind of sad. But it was drop-dead hysterical at the same time.

Love Don't Cost a Thing (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.

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