Welcome to Love Like This?, a romance column where we, Kathleen Newman-Bremang and Ineye Komonibo, revisit some of the most romantic — or not, in hindsight — scenes in Black film and TV history.
Love Don’t Cost A Thing — the 2003 rom-com starring Christina Millian and Nick Cannon, not the J.Lo song — celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The movie is a remake of the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love starring Patrick Dempsey and tells the story of Alvin Johnson (Cannon), a hapless nerd who is clueless about dating, and Paris Morgan (Milian), the popular girl dating an NBA rookie who is way out of his league. Their paths cross when Paris wrecks her mom’s car and doesn’t have the money to fix it. Naturally, Alvin offers her the money if she agrees to pretend to date him for two weeks to raise his social status. The nerd-gets-the-girl trope has been done plenty, but the race-swapped reboot was ahead of its time. Before every classic IP was getting remade with Black folks, Love Don’t Cost A Thing was there, asking you to buy into these two star-crossed lovers, divided by cliques and striving for their dreams set to a quintessential early ‘00s soundtrack (Nelly, Chingy, and Ginuwine all present and accounted for). Not a lot about this movie holds up, but nostalgia is a helluva drug, and the hokey dance Alvin invents while pretending to be cool is making a comeback on TikTok. There’s still a generation of Black kids whose love for this movie didn’t cost a thing in 2003.
It may have developed a cult following, but twenty years ago when Love Don’t Cost A Thing premiered, it wasn’t exactly beloved by critics; it’s sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety called it “stuffed with attitude but just as hackneyed as the original,” and L.A. Weekly said it was “short on charm, purpose or laughs.” The late great Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who had anything nice to say (Ebert loved himself a Black rom-com!). “This version is sweet and kind of touching, and I liked it,” he wrote, comparing it to Can’t Buy Me Love. “...the new one is lower on cynicism and higher on wisdom, and might actually contain some truth about the agonies of high school insecurity.” Ebert praised the “confidence and charm” of Milian in her first leading role and wrote that both she and Cannon have a “natural appeal that liberates their characters.” He wasn’t wrong about Milian. She’s gone on to become one of the few Black women currently ruling the B-list rom-com genre. As for Cannon’s “easy screen presence,” that’s debatable. These days, he’s more known for his controversial personal life than his onscreen presence, but will his antics impact our (re)viewing experience?
In honor of its anniversary, and in an attempt to figure out if we’ve still got a soft spot for Nick Cannon, we’re revisiting the classic film and deciding once and for all: would we really want a love like Alvin and Paris end up with? And if a man treats you poorly as soon as he tastes success (or, in this case, high school popularity), does that mean he’s shown you who he is deep down, and you should run for the hills? And now that Cannon’s place in pop culture is decidedly different than it was two decades ago, is he still a worthy leading man? Aside from his baby mama drama, is Cannon a good rom-com hero?
The Scene: By the time we get to the end of Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Alvin has lost his money, his friends, his fake girlfriend, and his recently acquired popularity. The basketball players who were his bullies but became his friends after he got cool clothes and a little sexual attention (thanks to Paris) are back to being the prototypical jocks from teen rom-coms: one-dimensional, brash, and ready to beat up anyone with half a brain. When Alvin’s nerdy OG friends (including a young Kal Penn and a criminally underutilized Keenan Thompson) sit in the “lucky seats” at a basketball game in their high school gym, and the players are about to pounce, he shows up to save the day. Alvin confronts the bullies and dares them to “start beating” him. “You can’t beat me no worse than I’ve been beating myself wanting to be friends with you,” he says. “All this time I was just frontin’ to be cool. I didn’t have the balls enough to be myself.”
Alvin then proudly declares all the things that make him “uncool” (like “blended mocha lattes with a little foam on the top,” apparently). As he’s giving his speech, Paris looks on, near tears and full of pride. After the nerds take back the school with one monologue, Alvin leaves the gym. Paris follows, dumps her cheating NBA boyfriend Dru, and forgives Alvin on the spot. She says, “I know you’re all mad at yourself. You’re feeling like some kind of fool because you’ve been frontin’ about who you are for two weeks. I’ve been frontin’ about who I am, who I want to be for as long as I can remember.” Mid-sentence, Alvin stops Paris with a kiss. They make out in the parking lot and, presumably, live happily ever after. Or do they?
Does The Grand Gesture Hold Up?
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: There’s no grand gesture, which is one of the things I really disliked about this movie. As you would say, “Where is the begging?” He doesn't have to work at all for this woman or for her forgiveness. The entire premise of this movie is that she's so far out of his league that he has to pay money to get her to even be in his presence. And then he treats her like shit for most of the movie. And then he doesn't even do a big grand gesture to get her back. He has a moment of his own self awareness by standing up to his bullies. The grand gesture wasn’t towards her. It was more for himself. Sure, he stood up for himself and I guess she found that attractive, but I hated everything about this. He doesn’t even declare his love for her! As you know, I'm usually not even down with a grand gesture. But in this case, she deserved one. That man should have been standing on the bleachers singing a love song with a fucking boombox over his head, crying.
Ineye Komonibo: In every teen romance movie, there's a grand gesture, so the fact that this wack man got the girl and his friends back after doing nothing to win them over? No. I didn’t like that. Maybe they were trying to subvert the genre, but that's not how it works. You owe us something. Alvin needed to be saying, “I really like you, and I'm sorry. You are the queen of my world.” Something! Even then, I still don’t know if that would’ve been enough in this scenario, because he was wilding the whole movie.
What do you think would have been an appropriate grand gesture given what he did? Is there anything that could have redeemed him?
KNB: He treated her like actual dirt for half the movie. Maybe it would have worked if he was absolutely humiliated — like a bad, bad humiliation in front of the entire school as payback. And then he came groveling. He needed to be on his knees. She deserved a public apology. He needed to stand up in front of everybody he disrespected her in front of and said, “I am sorry. This woman has done nothing. She's the greatest person on earth. And I stand here humbly before her and the entire school and apologize.” He would need to denounce all the shit that he threw her aside for — the popularity, mainly — and he’d just have to be like, “I don't care about any of that stuff anymore, and I'm just going to do everything possible to show you.” And he should’ve bought her a guitar or something that shows that he's supportive of her and of her interests.
That man should have been standing on the bleachers singing a love song with a fucking boombox over his head, crying.
IK: The thing is, he couldn’t even give up his popularity because didn't have a choice! He was completely ostracized after she exposed him, so he had no other option but to grovel. It would’ve been cool if they ended it with them not talking to each other: he apologizes, and whenever she sees him in the hallway, the guitar he gave her reminds her of their relationship, and they just pass by each other thinking about what could’ve been. That would’ve been a better ending for that weirdo. What a loser.
Could It Be Me?
KNB: Absolutely fucking not. You know that most of the time, I’m the bird who falls in love with everyone, and I think every declaration of love would work on me. But you're right: all he does is show up, stand up for himself, and then walk outside and make out with Paris showing barely any contrition for how he treated her. It wouldn't have worked on me. I'm stealing a line from another rom-com here, but in Set It Up, one character says to another, “You displayed a total lack of character when it mattered.” And that’s exactly how I feel about Alvin in this movie. In the moment when it mattered, he showed a complete lack of character. When push came to shove, when there was adversity, when there was a time when he had to show his character, he showed exactly who he was, and he chose popularity and chasing other girls.
IK: I would’ve gathered that man so badly if I were her. “You're nothing. I made you.” Usually, I think that kind of hubris is dangerous, but Paris legit made Alvin. Have some humility, man! Let this be a lesson: when you get the opportunity to be in the presence of a baddie, you need to act like you know where you are. Be grateful and have some sense about you. Because even though they had a fake relationship, when the whole scheme was revealed, her status wasn’t negatively impacted by it the same way his was — clearly, they’re not on the same level. I don’t know, I just think women need to start puffing up our chests more. I know that a lot of time, we want to be the bigger person, but ladies, we need to check these men. Please.
Rate The Kiss:
IK: When I think about Nick Cannon and kissing, I always think about Drumline. It came out before his movie, and the chemistry in Drumline between Nick and Zoe Saldana was cute. Obviously, Drumline is a different type of movie that’s not really a romance, but that chemistry was convincing to me. But in this movie, it wasn't really giving. So when the final kiss happens, I was ready for them to wrap it up. I was already annoyed at this couple and thinking, why are y'all even together? It’s a 5/10 for me.
KNB: I was also very annoyed, so it took away the excitement that usually comes with a big end-of-movie kiss. Also, at this point, Nick Cannon’s Alvin was extremely revolting to me. I wanted to puke every time he was on screen so I couldn't get into the kiss. He's so gross. But, I will say that actually the kiss was a decent length; there were lots of lips, and I think there was some tongue action in there. It was a decent kiss. The kiss is 7.5/10 for technique, but how I felt about these two characters kissing is a ZERO.
Is Nick Cannon A Good Romantic Lead?
IK: Nick just seems unserious in general, but as an actor, I find the guy to be extremely unserious, so him as a romantic lead just isn’t believable at all. Kudos to Christina Milian, the rom-com duchess, because she stays in her romantic comedy bag. She did her part. I guess he did his part. But Nick as the Guy Who Gets The Girl isn't necessarily something that I’d want to see again. If they did a Love Don’t Cost A Thing 2 or a series or something else that literally no one ever asked for, it would be a hard no for me. I think I'm good.
KNB: Same. I do think that part of the reason is that his celebrity image currently is just this weird man trying to populate the earth with his babies. It’s so fucking weird. That definitely comes into play with me never wanting to see him as a romantic lead on screen, because I just think he's gross as a person. Maybe “gross” isn’t the right word, but he seems like a narcissistic egomaniac. I just don't find that attractive. The persona that he puts out into the world right now is just not attractive to me, so it would be hard for me watching him on screen to get over that and think, Aww, he's a cute, romantic lead, and he genuinely likes this woman. I don't think he likes women, period. I don’t like how he talks about the mothers of his children. I think he looks at them just as vessels to give him more kids he doesn’t have enough time to see.
IK: Before all the kid stuff, would you have found him to be convincing or likable?
KNB: I definitely liked him at one point, probably during the Drumline era. And then when Wild ‘n Out with Nick Cannon first came out. I never was like, “That’s my man!” or had a crush on him or wanted to kiss him, but I think I liked him as a personality. I thought he was kind of funny, and in Drumline he was cute in, like, a nerdy way. But now, I actively dislike him. And I think that his acting in this movie is so horrific. It is so grating. His acting in this movie is the worst acting I have ever seen in a movie. Ever.
IK: Of all the movies ever? Wow.
KNB: I said what I said! It's so bad. In all the comedic parts where he's trying to elicit laughter and be a bad dancer, and you're supposed to be laughing at him attempting to dance, I don’t think he pulled that off. It's so cringey. Literally, my insides were curdling. And then when he’s supposed to be suave, that doesn’t work either. He’s no Steve/Stephan Urkel. Where’s Jaleel White when you need him?
I love Christina Milian as a romantic lead because she’s bringing an enigmatic quality to the role. You at least want to be watching her on screen. There wasn't a moment of this movie where Nick Cannon was on screen that I wanted him there.
IK: [gasps] Are y’all seeing this?? For the first time, it's not even me who’s bringing the hater energy — Kathleen really said it’s the worst movie she’s ever seen.
KNB: I said the acting! Maybe I should make a caveat and say that this is the worst acting I've ever seen in a romantic comedy. And yes, part of the problem is the writing, but a good enough actor can pull off bad writing or at least elevate it to something watchable. Kal Penn's in there being kind of charming. Keenan Thompson is making the best of it because he's a good comedic actor. And I love Christina Milian as a romantic lead because she’s bringing an enigmatic quality to the role. You at least want to be watching her on screen. There wasn't a moment of this movie where Nick Cannon was on screen that I wanted him there.
IK: That is a super hot take [laughs]. The problem for me is that I just don't understand Nick Cannon. It’s hard because this is someone who’s a part of our childhood — All That, Wild ‘n Out — and now, we’re seeing him as this weird person with some hidden agenda. If anything, the emotion I feel towards him now is more sadness. Now, no matter what he does, we’ll always know him as the guy indiscriminately getting women pregnant with, according to him, zero plans of stopping. So I feel like he’s definitely tainted his legacy in a way that’s hard to reconcile. That happens a lot in this industry, so it's disturbing but not surprising.
KNB: Yes, and I just really, really, really, really, really hated this movie. I do think it's the writing. There was a lot of weird, sexist messaging — everything out of Steve Harvey's mouth was misogynistic.
IK: I don't know how Steve Harvey was able to rebrand so heavily, because throwback Steve was rough. In general, when you watch a lot of early 2000s shows and movies, we were cool with so many awful things. Obviously, we know better now, but watching a lot of these movies back, I remember folks being really weird and openly problematic — myself included, because I for sure found a lot of things that I now side-eye absolutely hilarious. But thank God for growth.
KNB: It does explain a lot of what’s happening right now. When you go back and hear how fatphobic, transphobic or homophobic things were, it’s like, Oh, this is why I'm so fucked up about my body. Or this is why people hide who they are. That was the messaging we internalized. It was all-consuming. High school was such a toxic, horrible place for a lot of people, because we were getting media that was like, “If you're not popular, you're the biggest loser on earth. And also, If you're a boy in high school, you should be only thinking about sex and only wanting sex.” This movie clumsily attempts to dispel these messages, but ultimately, it perpetuates all of that.
When you watch a lot of early 2000s shows and movies, we were cool with so many awful things. Obviously, we know better now, but watching a lot of these movies back, I remember folks being really weird and openly problematic — myself included, because I for sure found a lot of things that I now side-eye absolutely hilarious.
Would You Want A Love Like This?
KNB: I think that if Alvin starts acting right and treats Paris like the queen that she is, they could have a good relationship. I wouldn't want it, but I think they can have it. He's got a massive hole to dig himself out of, but I do think if he goes back to being the sweet nerd who believes she is his dream girl and he starts treating her that way, then maybe. Maybe.
IK: My answer is no. He’s beneath her, and you know how I feel about women dating down. It’s inevitable in some cases, but no. He's wack! There are so many men out here in the world — she’s gotta get with somebody that will actually treat her the way she deserves. He doesn't have to know how to dress or be popular, but he should at least be a good person. PLus, they’re about to graduate high school! I didn’t talk to any of the guys that I liked in high school after senior year. Go to college, never talk to that man again, find somebody new. That's what you're supposed to do.
KNB: I am so glad I didn't date anyone seriously in high school. The person I loved in high school didn't love me back. And I'm so glad because the way I'm set up, I would have married my high school sweetheart even if we were fucking miserable. I would have stayed forever. I stay. That’s what I do. I would have said “my man my man my man” all the way to college. And it would have been a disaster.
IK: [laughs] God had a different plan for you.
KNB: Yes, and I'm so grateful. Just like Paris should be grateful that NBA dude showed his true colors and Alvin is also trash. She needs to graduate from these boys.
Is This Couple Still Together?
KNB: No, there's no way. I think she breaks up with him as soon as she goes to college. And if she doesn’t go to college to be a musician or whatever, I think they break up as soon as she leaves to pursue her own dreams. First of all, again, when it mattered, he showed us his character. I think he would get jealous of whatever she wanted to do. I think she would gain more popularity, fame, whatever, if she starts becoming a musician. And he would want some of that attention. And then as soon as he got it, he would be a fucking weirdo like we saw him become with an ounce of popularity. So, yeah, I think they break up. Maybe they try to stay together after she leaves, but then as soon as she starts getting some success and attention and new friends, he would feel threatened by that and he would do what he does, which is be the worst.
IK: Alvin’s a smart guy: When he goes to college, he’s going to see an opportunity to remake himself and become popular again, and he's going to do the exact same thing. He's going to start acting weird one way or another, and Paris is going to realize that she’s too good for this, and that she shouldn't have even played with him to begin with. Ultimately, she wins because she's going to end up dating somebody who isn’t freaking annoying.
Let this be a lesson: when you get the opportunity to be in the presence of a baddie, you need to act like you know where you are. Be grateful and have some sense about you.
KNB: I will say at least the one positive thing that Alvin gave Paris is the ability to leave her original man, the basketball guy. Because the NBA dude was horrible throughout the movie. She was able to realize that she deserved better than him and that she should pursue her own dreams. Alvin did kind of facilitate that.
IK: Cool. “Thanks for the memories, and thank you for helping me unlock my passion in life. Peace.”
KNB: You know how they say that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime? He was there for a reason: to show her that she deserves better and she should go in the direction of her dreams, without a man.
IK: We all have somebody, that person who was just a lesson. She learned her lesson. Now, don't ever do that again. The door is closed.