Romantic comedies tend to have a pretty twisted view of relationships. They’re fantasy, through and through, and shouldn’t be taken as life lessons at the best of times. But some are just more fantastical than others, and none more so than forgotten 1990 Steve Guttenberg vehicle The Boyfriend School.
Probably more accurately titled with its alternate name, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, The Boyfriend School has a breathtakingly dishonest point of view when it comes to human relationships. What if I told you there was a romantic comedy in which an overweight cancer survivor, played by Steve Guttenberg, is coached by his romance novelist sister (Shelley Long) to pretend to be a biker from New Zealand in order to get laid? Well, that’s this movie.
The Boyfriend School’s central conceit is the stuff MRA wet dreams are made of, only presented as charming, wacky rom-com hijinks. The central conceit is that Guttenberg’s character Gus is a plain “nice guy” without a romantic hope in hell, and that in order to attain Emily, Jami Gertz’s journalist character, As His Very Own, he’ll need to put on a persona 180 degrees removed from himself. Thus, as instructed by his sister, romance novelist Vivaca Lamoureaux, the transformation begins, and wacky hijinks ensue.
Now, the notion of a romance novelist who completely buys into their fantasy trying to enact that fantasy upon the real world is actually a pretty good one, ripe for satire. The Boyfriend School certainly attempts to pull it off - Long’s character is hopelessly enamoured of her own bullshit, spouting nonsensical prose (despite being endowed as a Fulbright Scholar) at every opportunity. She’s the worst romance novelist and kind of the worst person, manipulating Emily with stories of Gus’ cancer and straining the very fabric of reality to force these two people together.
But the film’s attempts at genre satire would work a lot better if the movie itself didn’t dive face-first into rom-com cliche. Populated entirely by characters who could only exist in a romantic comedy, the story relies entirely on missed connections, plot contrivances, and willful stupidity to make its toxic story work.
The notion of putting on a fake persona to get laid isn’t a new one, but the extent to which Long’s character pushes Guttenberg’s here is abominable. The film seems to genuinely go along with the idea of “making” Emily fall for Gus using a false identity, a tactic that can’t possibly have any hope of a successful “long game” - at least, none that isn’t predicated on creepy, creepy deception. Gertz's character, too, plays into the film's unhealthy ideals, and is completely suckered in by Guttenberg's persona.
It's a laughable persona. "Lobo Marunga, solitary biker from New Zealand" is indeed the kind of misjudged attempt at exoticism you might find in a bad romance novel, but Guttenberg plays it completely half-assed, adding to the mystery of why Emily would fall for him. His accent, more South African than Kiwi, is like a cheesegrater on the ears, and his clueless appropriation of Kiwi is cringe-inducing, if maybe intentionally so. To a Kiwi, it's hilarious to think that New Zealand is the one country the writers thought so exotic that nobody would pick a poor imitation. What’s worse, the entire character revolves around “hunting alone,” the kind of lone-wolf predator that pickup artists love to think they are.
The gross relationship content is made all the weirder by the fact that at no point does The Boyfriend School quite have a firm hand on its tone. It opens with animated cancer comedy set to a jaunty ‘80s pop ballad, before giving depressed, hairless survivor Gus a bunch of physical comedy to do. There’s a recurring gag of Lamoureaux’s kid (a medal to the casting director who found this incredibly off-putting child) nearly killing herself by eating lightbulbs, breathing gas, or putting her tongue in electrical outlets. There is a certain charm in how The Boyfriend School commits to its marriage of rom-com cliche to such bizarre and stupid ideas, but it’s down to your personal tolerance threshold. Mine is high, evidently.
The book upon which The Boyfriend School is based would seem to clear up some of the story’s messiness. Emily (named Gretchen in the novel) is the main character, which would hopefully eliminate the weird multiple-perspective deal the movie’s got going on. I don’t know how it ends, but it can’t be much worse than the film, which has Long’s character saving the day with yet another pack of lies before delivering a closing monologue about how sheep smell.
The Boyfriend School is not a great movie or even a good one. But it takes romantic comedy leaps in logic to such dizzying, untenable heights that it’s a captivating viewing experience. Just don’t take any love lessons from it. They are all bad.