"Can'tBuy Me Love," a John Hughes movie without "Pretty in Pink" director John Hughes, sure makes you appreciate the teens' auteur. Frankly, Steve Rash, who directs this copycat comedy, another nerd-gets-the-cheerleader romance, isn't fit to wear Hughes' hightops. Rash only tinkers with adolescent angst, without the progenitor's empathy for his audience.
But the story does address the teens' eternal conflict, the insiders versus the outsiders, which Hughes highlighted in "The Breakfast Club" as well. But as written by Michael Swerdlick and guided by Rash, the theme dissolves into a bland parody of pubescent pain.
Patrick Dempsey stars as an astronomy-loving senior, Ronald, who pays for popularity. He saves up his lawn-mowing money to buy a month-long relationship with Amanda Peterson, pleasant as a mall-aholic cheerleader, Cindy. She agrees to the arrangement -- kissing exempted -- because she needs $1,000 for a suede suit. As Ronald predicted, Cindy's cachet rubs off and soon he is the most popular boy on campus.
"Popularity isn't perfect. It almost seems like a job sometimes," warns Cindy, who becomes sensitive in Ronald's company, gaining a couple of values.
But Ronald ignores her advice and turns into a materialistic egomaniac, preoccupied with styling gel and his new wardrobe. He becomes the Complete Creep, who spurns Cindy and his dorky old friends and starts hanging out with stupid jocks and easy, jiggly girls ("girls" who, incidentally, look old enough to play their own mothers.)
But even exploiting peeping-teen sex can't rev up this mopey morality comedy, with its hero crying on his lawn mower when he loses his ill-gotten popularity and the cheerleader he loved. Dempsey, a regular on the TV series "Fast Times," has the charisma of lawn clippings. And he certainly hasn't got what it takes to turn this weepy creep into a sympathetic character. By the end of the movie, he's irredeemable. We'd like to put him into a shredder and make mulch. Can't Buy Me Love, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for coarse language and features teen-agers drinking and driving.