True Drew in Delightful No-Brainer, Plus an Uneasy, Edgy Go

Courage comes in an infinite variety of forms and faces, but who among us would be brave enough to relive our high school years, face the horrors of homeroom, and confront hallways so fraught with danger that the most treacherous battlefield would look as placid as a meadow?

It is precisely these horrors that must be overcome by Josie Geller, the heroine of the modest but immensely likable new romantic comedy Never Been Kissed. When we first see her, Josie (played with hilarious abandon by Drew Barrymore) is standing on the pitcher's mound of a baseball diamond surrounded by a stadium full of people who, it seems, have come not to see a baseball game, but to see her. Just how she came to be there -- and why -- is the subject of the film.

When we next see Josie, she has the pallor of a ghost and the wardrobe of a librarian. Her hair is a sort of dull brown and is pulled straight back into a knot. Marching toward her job as a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, she looks as if she might be at least a decade older than her 25 years. Still Josie has ambition and has made it clear that she has no intention of spending the rest of her life shackled to a copy desk. She wants to be a writer and has dreams of becoming a reporter.

Having decided that high school is the best place to find all the hot stories, the paper's quixotic editor-in-chief (played as a sort of manic autocrat by Garry Marshall) instructs Josie to go undercover as a high school student, stay long enough to discover some impropriety or scandal, then dash off a damning expose.

At first Josie is thrilled to get the assignment. Even after brother Rob (David Arquette) reminds her just what a Hell on Earth high school had been for her, conjuring hurtful images of her days as "Josie Grossie" to make his point, she remains steadfast in her determination to get the story.

At the outset Never Been Kissed may look like a picture about a journalist on the make, but in fact it is the story of an ugly duckling's transformation and pursuit of her romantic ideal. As Josie explains to her slutty workmate Anita (Molly Shannon), she is holding out for the day when the right man comes along and gives her the first real kiss of her life, the one in which she and her lover are in focus and the rest of the world around them is a blur. All of this romantic blather is just that: blather. And if Drew Barrymore weren't at the center holding it all together, the result could have been disastrous. But Barrymore is there with her expert timing, and her uncanny conviction, screwing up her face with an unrivaled collection of expressions.

In writing their script, first-time screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein don't seem to have had anything pressing on their minds, and they can be applauded for not trying to make it look as though they did. This is also true for director Raja Gosnell, a onetime film editor: His ambition seems to be to keep the action moving and the pace brisk. Barrymore, making her debut here not only as an executive producer but also as the lead in a full-fledged comedy, has miraculously been liberated from what little shyness or inhibition she may have had. The result is the discovery of a first-rate comic actor.

That Josie has run the high school gauntlet before doesn't appear to have given her much of an advantage. In fact in the beginning it looks as though history is going to repeat itself. Once Josie does make friends, it's with a crowd of brainy math geeks who call themselves the "Denominators." Led by a stringy-haired beanpole named Aldys (Leelee Sobieski), the Denominators become Josie's posse, but it's the popular group (led by the jailbait triumvirate of Kirsten (Jessica Alba), Kristin (Marley Shelton), and Gibby (Jordan Ladd)) that holds the key to the upper echelon of popularity as well as to the best stories. Without a little help from Rob, who signs up for a second tour himself and boosts Josie's coolness quotient by dropping a few choice lies about her hell-raisin' past, these girls might have remained aloof and unavailable.

To keep tabs on Josie while she's on the job, the boss orders her to wear a tiny camera and a microphone. Back at the paper her colleagues spend their lunch breaks viewing Josie's "broadcasts" as if they were tuning in to a soap opera. And, as events develop, that's exactly what Josie's adventures begin to look like, especially when Sam (Michael Vartan), the school's handsome literature teacher, begins to fall for her.

Never Been Kissed is not the sort of movie that will remain long in your memory. What is memorable though, is the film's easygoing charm and innocent spirit -- and Drew Barrymore. With performances like the ones she gave in Home Fries, Ever After, and even The Wedding Singer, Barrymore has established herself as an actor whose work is a constant surprise and delight. I can hardly wait to see what see does next.

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