There’s a moral to the new teen movie “Can’t Buy Me Love” (citywide): “Money can’t buy popularity.” But it seems to have been lost on the movie makers themselves. What are they doing here but trying to spend their way to audience approval, success and glory? The plot is another one-sentence gimmick, the jokes juvenile, the morality a sham.

What hope does a movie like this have except to spend its way into our hearts?

Here’s the strategy: Impress us with sleek production values. (Dig these threads!) Pull us into wild parties. (Dig this scene!) Exploit an attractive young cast. (Dig these chicks! Dig these hunks!) And crank up the sound track so we can hear the Beatles. (Dig these sounds!) Perhaps money can’t buy love, but it can sure buy a movie or two.

The plot isn’t a plot. It’s another marketing hook: High school nerd pays the town’s prettiest girl to date him for a month; winning phony popularity, he discovers life in the fast lane is a drag and he’s turning into a creep.

That sentence is about as funny as the movie; it just didn’t cost as much. To give “Can’t Buy Me Love” its due, it’s been directed rather well--much better than it deserves--by Steve Rash (“The Buddy Holly Story”); he has an easy, loping style and a sympathetic touch with the young cast. And Amanda Peterson is a charming ingenue, a cornflower-bright, gleaming little honeybunch. Her co-lead, Patrick Dempsey, might be equally charming if he weren’t saddled with such a dubious part.


But the heart of the story never gets beyond gimmick. Writer Michael Swerdlick says he based his concept on an experience he had at a talent agency: Ignored by his co-workers, he dated a top fashion model at an industry party, and was immediately fawned over. Swerdlick, with true demographic cunning, charged up this mild inspiration by changing the talent agency to a high school and the model to a cheerleader. No use writing a script for adults.

He ended up with the heartwarming spectacle of diligent but socially awkward lawn-trimmer Ronald Miller (Dempsey) taking advantage of the financial straits of head cheerleader Cindy Mancini (Peterson) by hiring her, for $1,000, to pose as his date. The cool crowd--jocks and cheerleaders--immediately accept him as one of their own. He ditches his friends, acts like a greased-up, finger-snapping bomba-bomba-boy--and even rebuffs Cindy when, amazingly, she shows some interest.

How can we sympathize with somebody like this? Buying a date is an offensive idea to begin with. (What would we think of Swerdlick if he’d paid that model?) And the “in” crowd Ronald is trying to crash are such vacuous dolts, his dream seems deranged. “He went from to-tally geek to to-tally chic!” drawl two Valley girl clownettes as Ronald bops along; once again, it’s not dialogue but an ad line.

Everything in the movie is perfunctory. At the end, there’s some sermonizing about accepting people for what they are: a complex moral philosophy which seems to have been derived from deep study of “Revenge of the Nerds.” But it’s difficult to take this from a script that shamelessly stereotypes everybody and whose main source of humor is flatulence jokes.

When Cindy and Ronald get together and bare their innermost souls, it’s practically indecent exposure. She’s described as a poet for writing lines about enfolding her lover in her arms in the deep blue sea: Joan Didion might not worry, but it sounds like Cindy has a future in shampoo commercials. And Ronald expresses his sensitivity by showing her his telescope, hauling her down to the airplane graveyard--a scene suggested by “The Best Years of Our Lives”?-- and ruminating on the largeness and vastness of everything. Poets and stargazers like this probably do belong together. But where is there a place for those humble souls whose only talents lie in football or flatulence?

‘CAN’T BUY ME LOVE’ A Touchstone Pictures/Silver Screen Partners II presentation of Mount Company production of an Apollo Pictures film. Producer Thom Mount. Director Steve Rash. Script Michael Swerdlick. Executive producers Jere Henshaw, Ron Beckman. Camera Peter Lyons Collister. Production design Donald L. Harris. Editor Jeff Gourson. Music Robert Folk. With Patrick Dempsey, Amanda Peterson, Courtney Gains, Tina Caspary, Seth Green, Sharon Farrell.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).