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.

After seeing Doug Liman's first effort, Swingers, I might have said the same thing about him. But 30 minutes into his second film, Go, I had doubts as to whether I could make it through to the end.

Set in the squalid underground of suburban Los Angeles, Go attempts to find comedy in the overlapping stories of four directionless young people during the 24-hour period leading up to Christmas Day. Ronna (Sarah Polley) is a grocery store checkout clerk trying to scrounge up enough money to keep from being evicted; Simon (Desmond Askew) is an opportunistic young Brit who makes his living as a small-time dope peddler; Adam (Scott Wolf) and buddy Zack (Jay Mohr) are soap-opera actors trying to work their way out of a little run-in with the law; Claire (Katie Holmes), is another checkout clerk in the same store where Ronna works. Along with her friend Mannie (Nathan Bexton), Claire is forced from her role as passive onlooker into the squalor.

The lack here is not one of talent. While watching Go, which was written by John August (God), I was impressed by the fluid manner in which Liman moves from one point of view to another and the masterful way in which he shifts from the comic to the tragic to the absurd without losing control of the film's tone. The problem is Liman's motives. I get the feeling that what he wanted most was to step up a rung in class and join the big-time filmmakers like Scorsese, Stone, and Tarantino. If that was his intention then he has failed miserably. Without a doubt Go is a more ambitious movie than Swingers and has a greater sense of urgency and gravity. But what the filmmaker actually achieves with his sophomore effort is more the appearance of depth than the real thing.

The whole picture has the sort of edginess and hair-trigger volatility that Liman achieved only once in Swingers, when the member of one gang bumps into another and almost sparks a violent gun battle. The problem is that, even in Swingers, the scene doesn't work. You feel as if Liman were stretching for significance and falls flat.

In Go Liman creates a vision of unrelieved depravity and amorality where none of the characters has a single redeeming human quality. It is nothing for Todd to ask Ronna to show him her breasts as a condition for selling her drugs, or subsequently for Ronna to dupe her customers by substituting cold medication for Ecstasy. It follows then, that later on, when Adam and Zack commit a more serious crime, their only concern is whether or not they will get caught. In the world of Go, there is only violence and self-interest, and as a result, the vision of humanity is as false as the one in which good always triumphs over evil, where violence is always punished, darkness is balanced by light, and honesty is its own reward.

Go strains for significance in every frame. But Liman hasn't developed fully enough either as a filmmaker or as a thinker to support the film's demands on us. One of the most appealing things about Swingers was the absence of pretense. It never asked to be taken for more than what it is, which is a kind of extended exercise for actors. Swingers has style and a fresh sense of comedy, but not a particularly strong voice or point of view. What Go adds to the mix is a set of easily adopted assertions about the soullessness of the country's young people. In his desire to be a heavyweight, Liman has lost the very qualities that made his previous work so refreshing and original.

By contrast it is a complete lack of anything other than the desire to entertain in director Gosnell and the people who helped him create Never Been Kissed that makes that movie such a joy and a delight. And that goes for Barrymore, too. All she wants to do is make us giggle.

Never Been Kissed.
Directed by Raja Gosnell. Written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. Starring Drew Barrymore, David Arquette, Michael Vartan, Molly Shannon, Garry Marshall, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Alba, Marley Shelton, and Jordan Ladd.

Directed by Doug Liman. Written by John August. Starring Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew, Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr, and Nathan Bexton.


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