Never Been Kissed (1999)

D: Raja Gosnell
S: Drew Barrymore, David Arquette, Michael Vartan

There are some nice story ideas in this light romantic comedy from star Drew Barrymore's production company, many of which follow reasonably okay threads before petering out in a disappointingly ordinary fashion. Thankfully Barrymore herself is there to keep things going in an infectious star turn perfectly tailored to her needs. She plays a dumpy but diligent Chicago Sun-Times copy editor assigned to an undercover case by the eccentric owner (a nice turn from Garry Marshall). Her task: enrol in a local high school and scope out the stories which matter. The problem: frumpy nerds are no more in fashion in the late nineties than they were in the 1980s, when she earned the nickname "Josie Grossie" and was the victim of a cruel prom night joke.

There's a lot of fantasy here: from Barrymore's virginal obsession with the 'one special kiss' which will make her fairytale ideals of prince charming come true to the safe and happy world of peer pressure and knowing your true self where the bulk of the action takes place. No gang related violence here, no frightening netherworld of drugs and random death, no indications that this Chicago High School exists anywhere but in the realms of imagination. This is not a problem as such, but it does mean that the story of emotional betrayal and the masks we wear has a very superficial backdrop in which nothing is really at stake despite all the allusions to Shakespeare. It leaves Never Been Kissed lurking in the company of the rest of the late nineties high school teen comedies, which is disappointing, especially given its sly attempt to cross the 'adult' world with the vacuous hijinks of the genre (there are some very amusing little in-jokes, not least of which is the admitted casting of a twentysomething as a teenager instead of the usual pretence).

It still works, largely thanks to the performances. Barrymore is sympathetic and funny in the lead, unafraid to look genuinely ordinary in the early scenes. If there is a significant sub-text here, it is the contrast between Barrymore's slightly chubby but lovable character and the slim but nasty coterie of beauties against which she is pitted in part. This aside, the actress does a nice line in broad comedy, from cross-eyed slapstick to her flashback sequences made up in hideous mock-eighties style and wearing braces (watch also for the hash brownie sequence). She also handles herself nicely in the romantic mode. There may be a shade too much eyelash fluttering, but she comes across as genuinely bashful, and we do wish her the best in the formulaic finale. David Arquette has fun in support as her brother who elects to join the deception and give himself a second chance at becoming a baseball star. Entertaining support from Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly adds some depth and provides one or two priceless moments (the sex education class is a hoot).

There are some interesting things going on in there, from questions of romance in the 1990s to troubles in the workplace. There are some lovely swipes at postmodern television culture as Barrymore's colleagues tune in daily to her antics at school being filmed via secret camera, and in the variety of characters who turn up at the final prom (watch for the Hunter S. Thompson and Attorney couple). But this is not a film which will expand your knowledge of movies, or of the human condition. It abandons any and all of this thematic material and potentially surreal humour to a fairly standard romantic niceties. It passes the time pleasantly enough and there's no malice in its refusal to plunge more deeply into the darkness which lurks just beneath its surface. Kudos to Barrymore in her role as star and executive producer, but let's hope that next time she plays just a little less by the numbers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.