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Barrymore radiates in predictable but enjoyable script

Never Been Kissed
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Molly Shannon, David Arquette, Michael Vartan, Leelee Sobieski, Garry Marshall, John C. Reilly, Jessica Alba, Marley Shelton, Jordan Ladd, and Jeremy Jordan
Screenplay: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein
Producers: Sandy Isaac, Nancy Juvonen, and Drew Barrymore
Director: Raja Gosnell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sex-related material and some drug content

This review contains strong spoilers--if you want to be surprised, skip over the paragraph marked with warnings!
One of the worst things a film can do to ruin the movie going experience is follow up a very good film with a very mediocre ending. Such is the case with Never Been Kissed, a film that sets up a wonderfully quirky plot to follow along and then dumps it by the end in order to make the audience feel good. Ironically, leaving the theater, I was mildly disappointed that the filmmakers didn't run with the setup they had created for themselves. While it's nowhere near the disastrous ending of The Devil's Advocate (the king of all bad endings), it does leave a strange taste that lingers long after you've left the theaters.

What is most surprising is that Never Been Kissed, for most of its running time, is lively, original, and quite fun to behold. Much of this is to the credit of Drew Barrymore (my friends now like to refer to her just as Drew), who continues to expand her comeback to filmmaking since the release of Scream. She may just be the most charismatic comedic actress ever to grace the screen, even surpassing the beloved Meg Ryan. Whether its mediocre films like The Wedding Singer or genuine treasures like Ever After, Drew has always been in top form, commanding the screen with a headstrong assuredness. She can be funny and pitiful, charming and cute all at the same time. If she cries, we feel her pain. If she laughs, we laugh with her. Only a few actresses have ever attained that level of compassion and empathy.

With Never Been Kissed, we get to see Drew as she has been in almost all of her recent roles: a loner with a self-esteem problem (her character seems ripped right out of Ever After, in fact). However, Drew has such a childlike appearance that she is able to gain our trust and sympathy just by appearing on screen. During one cruel moment halfway through the film, we watch her get horribly embarrassed by a guy she has a crush on. This moment is shocking in its presentation, with director Gosnell doing an impressive job of maintaining our sympathy for her character. She looks geeky and nerdy, the type of person we may actually laugh at. But by establishing our trust, watching her suffer is an experience of raw emotion. It sounds strange to hear an audience gasp and cry at her misfortune, all the while laughing at the absurd situations she stumbles into.

Never Been Kissed begins with an unnecessary establishing moment, with Drew announcing that she will be telling us the story of how she got to where she is. Drew plays Josie Geller, the youngest copy editor working at the Chicago Sun-Times (is that Roger Ebert I see in the background?). The English language has been her love for years, correcting people when they make grammatical errors while speaking (sounds like my dad). One day, she gets the opportunity to go undercover as a reporter at a local high school. Her editor-in-chief, Rigfort (Garry Marshall), proclaims that if she doesn't get a good story, not only will she be fired, but so will her immediate boss Gus (John C. Reilly).

Josie gets a beat-up old car from her brother Rob (David Arquette), a self-proclaimed loser working at the Tiki Shop, a postal service which hands out leis to everyone who enters. Now, with a brand new wardrobe provided by her best friend Anita (Molly Shannon), she goes off to high school, where she again relives her horrors of being an outsider. At first, she's only accepted by the brainy "nerds," particularly Aldys (Leelee Sobieski). She tries desperately to fit in with the It-crowd, but fails with embarrassing results. The rebellious Guy (Jeremy Jordan) and the cliquey Kirsten (Jessica Alba), Kristen (Marley Shelton), and Gibby (Jordan Ladd) all pick on Josie, right down to her retro outfits. That is, until Rob enrolls, under the assumption that if he can become popular, he can convince others that Josie isn't as nerdy as she initially seems.

All of this occurs while smaller subplots come to the surface, such as one involving the student-teacher relationship between Josie and Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan). Sam believes Josie to be 17, which she stoutly defends, all the while becoming attracted to her adult-like sensibilities. He's conflicted with his feelings, which leads up to the film's less-than-admirable conclusion. What makes this conclusion so frustrating is that two different endings could have occurred, and we would have been left with a much more satisfying feeling. Instead, the ending is rather anti-climactic, holding back when it should be pulling out all the stops.

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead--skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen the film*

The ending we are given is quite depressing, leaving a negative feeling when the film should make you feel all warm and fuzzy. What we are given is an ending that has Sam run out to Josie and kiss her for the first time. Two things could have made this scene work: 1) overplay the situation by having Sam ride in on a white horse, and snatch Josie from her place on the mound, or 2) leave Sam out of the equation. If Sam hadn't even shown up (the ending I would have appreciated the most), the film would still have worked--even moreso, since Josie has found that love is not the only thing in the world. Thematically, this ending would have strengthened the film's plight (although, it would have weakened the audience reaction). Had they gone for the more extravagent version of having Sam ride in on a horse, I would have been just as pleased. Not only would it have made his last statement much more meaningful, but it would have brought together the theme and the romance. Either way would have increased my rating by at least half a star.

*END OF WARNING: You may now return to reading*

As said before, this is Drew's film, and she takes it by the horns and wrestles it to the ground. We care for her character so much that by the end, we just want her to be kissed for the first time (thus, the title 'Never Been Kissed'). Michael Vartan, an intensely handsome and intelligent actor, gives a magnificent performance in a star-making role as the teacher in love. Vartan, who's been in smaller roles before, makes Sam one of the sweetest, kindest male figures in recent film history. Keep an eye out for this one. Saturday Night Live regular Molly Shannon gives another good performance in what has become a nice line of work. Her scene as a sex-education teacher is fantastic. David Arquette continues to impress with his very funny mannerisms at work here. Much needs to be said about the trio of beautiful actresses who portray the villains in the film. Alba, Shelton, and Ladd all do some great work, creating three snobbish students who think appearance is the only thing that matters. Jeremy Jordan gives a funny performance as teenage hearthrob Guy. And John C. Reilly and Garry Marshall are both good as Josie's bosses. There is not one weak link in the entire film (which is quite surprising considering how large it actually is).

Director Gosnell does a great job here, a vast improvement over his dud Home Alone 3. He uses the camera effectively, creating a colorful and bright world where bad things sometimes happen to good people. One particular scene on a ferris wheel is very well handled. It's a shame that the screenplay by newcomers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein use the same cliches it tries to exploit. While it does humorously satire the fact that most teenagers in high school movies look like adults, it ruins that effect by adding some outlandish cliches. Thankfully, they have given us some nice dialogue to listen to, especially in the lyrical way it handles the parallelism of Shakespeare's As You Like It. One important factor that the screenwriters have taken into account is how much our high school experience affects the rest of our lives. If you don't believe that your high school experience influenced how you live today, you are fooling yourself. Never Been Kissed shows that high school is the epitome of our developmental years. This is much smarter than your average film about high school life.

Never Been Kissed is rated PG-13 for language, sex-related material, and some drug content. The drug content is pretty obscure, especially if you don't know what they are talking about. Finally, we have a film about teenagers and high school students where sex isn't as predominant as it is in other films. What the main focus here is true romance and how it affects everybody. It's also about finding who you really are amidst the chaos that is high school. I just wonder why this film was around when I was going through high school. It may have helped me a lot... not that I'm saying I was a geek or anything. No, really. Oh, and stick around for the closing credits. The filmmakers actually have the audacity (and courage) to show their own high school photographs next to their names. It's a daring feat, yet works perfectly to end this magical fairy tale.

*** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews