Tuesday 22 July 2014

Movie Review: Never Been Kissed (1999)

A back-to-high-school comedy of sorts, Never Been Kissed is a tedious non-event, attempting to sail on the charms of star Drew Barrymore but crashing on the shores of an infantile script.

Straitlaced and single, 25-year-old Josie Geller (Barrymore) is a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, with ambitions to be a journalist. Her boss Gus (John C. Reilly) does not think she has what it takes, but the newspaper's eccentric editor-in-chief Rigfort (Garry Marshall) anyway assigns her to go back to her high school as a fake student and prepare an exposé about modern teenagers.

Josie returns to South Glen High School and is soon reliving the nightmare she experienced in her real life senior year, when she was a gawky unpopular girl. Just as awkward and clumsy this time round, Josie is shunned by the cool clique of girls consisting of Gibby (Jordan Ladd), Kirsten (Jessica Alba), and Kristen (Marley Shelton) but befriended by the nerds, including Aldys (Leelee Sobieski). When her naturally cool brother Rob (David Arquette) also re-enlists at the high school, he helps Josie turn the corner and become popular. As the prom approaches, the pressure increases on Josie to file her story, and she finds herself attracting the attention of handsome student Guy (Jeremy Jordan) and dishy English teacher Sam (Michael Vartan).

Never Been Kissed was the first feature film co-produced by Barrymore's Flower Films, an inauspicious if commercially successful start. It's difficult to understand what the film is trying to achieve. It does not work as a look back at a different era, since Josie is not so far out of high school for much to have changed. It does not work as a romance, with the relationship between Josie and Sam remaining tepid at best, and the film unwilling to delve into the complex waters of lust between teacher and student.

It does not work as a comedy or a parody. Scenes of Josie tripping over herself and spilling milk on her dress are painfully contrived rather than funny. And it certainly does not work as any form of exposé of high school life, the film losing all credibility by stretching it's already thin premise to have Josie's brother Rob also re-enlist in the same high school with the no one the wiser, the equivalent of doubling down on a clearly losing hand.

And finally the "be yourself and be happy" message, delivered without irony, falls flat within the pervasive confirmation that the traditional high school ecosystem, consisting of cool kids, nerds, jocks and in-betweens, is what it has always been, and is unlikely to change.

Director Raja Gosnell is left with the charisma of his star to trade on, and Barrymore gives it all she has, which is not nearly enough to save the movie. Barrymore does not convince neither as a stiff copy editor nor as a clumsy teenager, and is worse still in the over-the-top flashbacks to Josie's real high school senior year, where she portrays a ridiculous walking disaster built on out-of-date fashion and immature behaviour. John C. Reilly over-acts to distraction, while James Franco and Jessica Alba appear in fairly minor early career roles.

Stuck in the neutral gear of irrelevance, Never Been Kissed simply never gets going.

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