The predominant image that emerges from Troy Beyers’ Love Don’t Cost a Thing is Steve Harvey’s teeth. As Clarence, father to the film’s ineffably hapless, gottagettadate high school student protagonist, Harvey embodies an amiable, old-schoolish foolishness, eager to instruct Alvin (Nick Cannon) in the fine arts of dancing to Al Green and being a “true player.” These might provide nominal jump-offs for Harveyan humor. But at the same time, he’s trapped inside a remake of the wholly pedestrian Can’t Buy Me Love (Steve Rash 1987), which means that he’s playing a dad inspired by John Hughes. Though he mugs energetically and smiles extra-widely, Harvey’s PG-13 comedy can’t fill up the film’s numerous holes.
One of these is the lack of updating or rethinking of basic high school movie tenets—and you know how much these need rethinking. Alvin’s outsider status is indicated not only by his dated hairdo(s) and terrible clothing choices, but also by arguments at home with a slightly cooler younger sister, after-school employment (pool boy to the wealthy), and affiliation with the resident nerd club (Kenan Thompson [formerly of Kenan and Kel], Kevin Christy, and Kal Penn) who are, in this case, building a shiny car engine to win a national contest and college money.
While Cannon, like Can’t Buy Me Love‘s Patrick Dempsey before him, reveals considerable charisma (as he also did in Drumline), the film won’t cut him a break—it’s relentlessly cartoon-sized, never trusting anyone (characters, actors, or viewers) to comprehend any little bit of innuendo. Rather, Cannon is subjected to all sorts of dopey jokes. When Alvin spots the girl of his dreams at a pool party—Paris (Christina Milian)—he goofily imagines she’s beckoned to him, then walks, lips a-pucker in his dreamstate, into the very pool he’s supposed to be cleaning, much to the derisive delight of the surrounding bling bling boys, that is, fellow students who love themselves too much.
Things only degenerate when the plot kicks in. Miss Thing dents her mom’s Cadillac Escalade, and as everyone knows, such conveyances cost fortunes to fix. Strapped for the $1500 repair bill, she agrees to let Alvin buy her for a month, or rather, buy the appearance that they’re dating, so that for his last 30 days in high school, he can see what it’s like to live on the other side, to feel revered.
The story goes that as Alvin and Paris spend time performing their coupledom, she actually comes to appreciate his “genuine” niceness (even as you see Clarence schooling him in how to be a man, giving him a shoebox full of assorted condoms). Paris is briefly distracted by her girlfriends, who lust after new toy Alvin, and her ex, now a pro basketball player who’s plainly dallying with groupies. At the same time—and so “ironically”—Alvin becomes insufferable because he buys his own enlarged rep at school. Hanging with the cool kids only makes him stupid, or brings his inherent stupidity to the surface. Dissing his dad and infinitely patient mom (Vanessa Bell Calloway), ignoring his longtime friends, he forgets to finish the engine project so he can hang with the cool kids and wear the Sean John tracksuits Paris buys for him.
This plot point—that Alvin’s desire to be popular overwhelms his own ostensible good sense—might have worked more convincingly if Paris, the original object of desire, seemed at all desirable. But she’s as bland and detached as high school divas come, this despite best efforts by the adorable but still awkward Milian. (It’s worth noting that she’s been caught in an “about-to-be” industry loop for some time, as her first album has been about to be released for two years, and who has just dropped her second first single/duet with Ja Rule, this one with her name first—what that says about Ja’s rising or falling star is a mildly interesting question, as is the odd choice to make the second single sound much like the first). She was fine hosting MTV’s Wannabes last year, but she might benefit from more careful management.
Who, for example, decided it was a good idea to have her croon a little diary-poem tune with guitar in her lap and blind-shadows across Paris’ bedroom wall? Alvin comes to visit, and he encourages Paris to confess her deepest feelings, so that he might soothe her and tell her how special she is. The formula, of course, holds that such a scene will show the rich girl’s vulnerability, so that her developing affection for Alvin might lead to a happy romantic clinch (contingent on his own learning of a few lessons having to do with loyalty and doing what’s right). But the moment is so simultaneously mushy and peculiar that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for either of them.
The blind-shadows in Paris’ bedroom raise another issue—the film’s oddly edgy cinematography (courtesy Chuck Cohen, who also shot Any Given Sunday and Training Day). Love Don’t Cost a Thing is as unlike a romantic comedy in appearance and tone as any I can remember—scenes are often surprising, with camera lurches, wide lenses, and handheld scampering effects. If only the camerawork had something to do with (or better, some tonal influence on) the plot and dialogue, both distractingly silly. And if only Steve Harvey had a few more close-ups.