1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love was a modest box office success. But its biggest cultural impact was introducing the world to Patrick Dempsey’s hotness. Dempsey played Ronald Miller, a “nerd” who gives a cheerleader $1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend, hoping the extra social cache will pay off in popularity. The movie turned him into a heartthrob, paving the way for his McDreaminess a few decades later.
But we had our eyes on the wrong guy. While Ronald Miller learns the lesson telegraphed in the film’s title, the real heartthrob is hiding in plain sight. I’m talking about nerd-next-door Kenneth Wurman, played by under-the-radar hunk Courtney Gaines. Ronald Miller goes from geek to chic, but Kenneth Wurman goes from geek to still-a-geek to yep-you-guessed-it-still-very-much-a-geek. And that kind of authenticity is sexy.
Even without looking at this movie through a #MeToo lens, the film’s original title Boy Rents Girl tells us everything we need to know about Ronald’s sexual wokeness. But Kenneth wouldn’t dare buy a girl’s love because he already understands that women aren’t a damned commodity.
When we first meet Kenneth, he’s looking for Ronald, who stood him up at the library. He tracks down his BFFN (Best Friend For Now, because you know Kenneth has better friends in his future) at the football field, where Ronny’s creepily spying on cheerleaders. Unfazed, Kenneth asks the Ronster if he’s saved enough money to buy a telescope yet, proving he both cares about his friend and is adept at delivering exposition.
Kenneth Wurman is the anti-incel. When Ronald complains that girls aren’t interested in them, Kenneth proudly proclaims “at least we have the yearbook committee!” He is optimistic to the core and refuses to let the Ron Dog salt his sugar. When Ronald asks Kenneth if he’d like to be popular, Kenneth rhetorically asks: “And have to be in a clique?” Kenneth innately understands how soul-sucking it is to conform. He’s literally the only smart person in this movie.
Not to mention, he should be a fashion icon. Check out that suspenders and visor combo! This guy’s even confident enough to eat lunch at high school WITH A NAPKIN TUCKED IN HIS SHIRT LIKE A BIB. Ronald doesn’t deserve this self-possessed iconoclast’s friendship. None of us do.
Kenneth’s shining moment is at the school dance. He and his nerd herd have been shunned from the dance floor (the closest this film comes to exploring an idea of otherness) and are forced to watch from the bleachers. But they arrive in time to see Ronald commit an egregious act of cultural appropriation and teach the other white students a tribal dance he learned from a PBS documentary.
Take note that Kenneth immediately recognizes that Ronald’s doing the African Anteater Ritual. He doesn’t join in because he knows it’s not his ritual to perform, unlike every other idiot student at that idiot dance.
Kenneth was woke before “woke” was even a thing.
His simmering-below-the-surface hotness is that much more surprising because of his backstory, which is worthy of a super-villain: every Halloween, the cool kids literally throw shit on his doorstep. But despite the emotional trauma of being forced to clean up popular kid poop every year, he keeps his shame to himself. In fact, he doesn’t confront his feelings about this yearly assault until Big Time Asshole Ronald joins in on the “fun.”
Later, Kenneth tells him: “You shit on my house, man.” And then, he adds: “You shit on my house!” And then, following the comedic rule of threes, he repeats, somberly: “You shit on my house.”
The movie thinks it’s telling Ronald’s story, but this “you shit on my house” moment is actually where Can’t Buy Me Love wears its heart on its sleeve. Pathos, regret, betrayal, loss of innocence—it’s all there on Kenneth Wurman’s face. It’s like he’s daring us not to love him.
Despite being the only self-possessed kid at this high school—or perhaps because of it—Kenneth has spent his entire life being scorned. But he just keeps on hiking up his pants, studying his calculus, and laughing like a hyena. Eternally unperturbed. In a movie filled with people trying to be other people, Kenneth is the only one brave enough to be himself. And that, my friends, is the definition of hot. So you can have McDreamy. I’ve only got eyes for Kenneth Wurman.