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(2003) (Nick Cannon, Christina Milian) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A teenager agrees to help the most popular girl in school fix her mom's damaged SUV in exchange for her posing as his girlfriend for two weeks.
Alvin Johnson (NICK CANNON) is a high school student who's good with cars but lousy with girls. He fantasizes about cheerleader Paris Morgan (CHRISTINA MILIAN), the most popular girl at his school, but he's all but invisible to her and her stuck-up friends Yvonne (NICHOLE ROBINSON) and Zoe (MELISSA SCHUMAN), except when jock Ted (AL THOMPSON) makes fun of him.

Thus, he seems relegated to hanging out with his fellow nerdy friends Walter (KENAN THOMPSON), Kenneth (KAL PENN) and Chuck (KEVIN CHRISTY) and getting unwelcome sexual advice from his father, Clarence (STEVE HARVEY). His fortunes change, however, when he discovers that Paris has wrecked her mom's SUV and is in a bind for repairing it before she returns home.

Alvin then decides to offer to pay for the replacement part and do the labor himself in exchange for her posing as his girlfriend for two weeks so that he'll look popular and fit in with the in-crowd. She's naturally reluctant to this arrangement - not only because he's a nobody and she thinks all he wants is sex, but also due to her having a boyfriend, NBA player Dru (ELIMU NELSON) - but eventually agrees out of desperation.

When they then start acting like a couple at school, none of their friends can believe it. With some eventual coaching from her, Alvin then starts to adopt a cool, hip-hop demeanor and appearance, eventually making him quite popular with the other students. Yet, that comes at the expense of his former friends. From that point on and as Paris starts to fall for him, Alvin must decide whether to continue the charade or just be his former self.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Ask most anybody about his or her high school years and they'll likely agree that nearly every strata of regular life - rich or poor, athlete or brainy, and popular and otherwise invisible - was mirrored wherever they went. Accordingly, most everybody can identify with films set in or about high school and their class structure of the haves and have-nots.

At least that's what writer/director Troy Beyer (director of "Let's Talk About Sex," writer of "B.A.P.S.") and co-writer Michael Swerdlick ("Can't Buy Me Love," "Class Act") hope with their high school-based comedy, "Love Don't Cost a Thing." Of course, if one went to school somewhere in The Twilight Zone that will certainly help in understanding and/or accepting the comedic offerings here.

A loose remake of Swerdlick's own 1987 scripted comedy, "Can't Buy Me Love," the film feels more like a bizarre sampling of the "best/worst" moments from most any labored, low-budget and decidedly unfunny comedy. Following the basic premise of that prior and far better film, this effort has an okay if unremarkable and obviously unoriginal plot.

In short, the school nobody essentially hires a somebody to pose as his girlfriend for two weeks so that he can experience how the "better half" lives. Along the way, he learns the tricks of the trade, so to speak, but then falls prey to his own, short-lived legend.

Something of a modified Pygmalion sort of story, there's not a surprise to be found in these cinematic bones except for just how bad the film is. If you can imagine any number of ways this sort of picture could be bungled, the filmmakers have used them and even invented a few of their own.

While I wasn't expecting a social satire on high school life along the lines of "Election," I at least thought there might be something funny, clever or at least charming about it. Alas, none of those or any other positive quality can be used to describe this mess.

All of the characters are caricatures at best, thus obviously affecting the performances, but they're a whole set of problems onto themselves. Everything is played as broadly as possible (although not to the point of farce), the throughput of the plot is scattershot at best, and some of the story and character developments have that Twilight Zone sort of feel to them.

For example, when the protagonist dumps his hired girlfriend as planned - but goes above and beyond the call of duty in trashing her in front of others - the girl's best friends aren't taken aback by that. No, they find it very appealing and thus one immediately jumps on the chance to date him (and, I guess, receive a similar break-up thrashing herself).

Another bizarre development involves the protagonist's father - played by Steve Harvey ("The Fighting Temptations") - going full force into telling his son about condom use and being a little too interested in his son's love life. I realize the filmmakers are just trying to elicit laughs from the similar material found in the "American Pie" films, but instead of being outrageously funny (Harvey is no Eugene Levy), it's just weird and not at all hilarious or even amusing as presumably intended.

As the would-be popular kid, Nick Cannon ("Drumline," TV's "All That") isn't funny either in his bland, unappealing and unsympathetic performance. For this sort of film to work you really need the kid to be likeable, but Cannon comes off just as a young actor goofing around on the set. Christina Milian ("Durango Kid," "The Wood") fares a bit better and is certainly easy on the eyes, but the script and direction don't do her any favors.

The performances by the set of actors and actresses playing their respective best friends -- Kenan Thompson ("My Boss' Daughter," "Good Burger"), Kal Penn ("Malibu's Most Wanted," "Van Wilder"), Kevin Christy ("Dude, Where's My Car?" "A Time for Dancing"), Nichole Robinson ("Any Given Sunday") and Melissa Schuman (making her feature debut) - face a similar fate and would be instantly forgettable if they weren't so annoying (particularly regarding the ladies).

The same holds true for the overall, tedious and overplayed yet underdone film. While the title suggests that affection might be free, a good script, capable direction and decent performances certainly do cost, and usually far more than just a thing. The cheap looking and poorly executed "Love Don't Cost A Thing" rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 2003 / Posted December 12, 2003

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