1999's biggest and most overwhelming surprise: from a director (Raja Gosnell, Home Alone 3, 1997) and writers (Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) whose names and previous experience evoke no great expectation, Never Been Kissed is a delightfully fresh and inventive comedy.
The genre of the teen movie saw an enormous resurgence in late '90s. Like Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997), this film has two layers. In flashback, we learn of the truly miserable teen years suffered by Josie (Drew Barrymore) at high school. In the present tense, we follow a mid-20s Josie at her newspaper job, where she longs to graduate from pedantic sub-editor to glamorous reporter.
Josie's first break as an investigative journalist comes when she must go undercover in high school. This prospect both excites and troubles Josie because she once again stands a good chance of ending up the geek of the classroom, publicly humiliated by all the beautiful, conniving, cliquey teens.
The undercover-teen-masquerade premise is an old one in popular cinema, but what Never Been Kissed does with it is nothing short of breathtaking. A superb script multiplies characters and sub-plots, making bold, judicious use of strong narrative moves that, every so often, completely reorient the possibilities and likely outcomes of Josie's situation.
When Josie's boss, Gus (John C. Reilly), insists that she attend class hooked up to a hidden camera and microphone, the film offers a superior digest of recent films about the media and everyday life (The Truman Show, 1998, EDtv, 1999). When her brother, Rob (David Arquette), decides that he, too, could benefit from a return to high school, the complications of the masquerade rise exponentially.
And when the newspaper orders Josie to focus her investigation on a handsome teacher, Sam (Michael Vartan), the film's bubbling romantic intrigue is ingeniously split between this older guy and the school's dazzling but vacuous pack-leader, Guy (Jeremy Jordan).
On their own, each sub-plot of the film is conventional and predictable – Josie wants dignity and success; Rob wants a shot at a sports career; Josie's best adult friend, Anita (Molly Shannon), wants more than a casual fling; Josie's new teen friend, Aldys (Leelee Sobieski), is the brilliant nerd craving recognition of her specialness.
Yet, when all of these busy intrigues collide, a happy ending in one may mean disillusionment and despair in another. In this fashion, the film maintains a high-wire suspense – and performs many dexterous steps crossing from comedy to drama and back.
Never Been Kissed is exhilarating in its acknowledgement of certain painful and extremely human contradictions. Although the film could easily have become a vengeful tirade against all those deemed beautiful and privileged in an iniquitous world, it instead cradles Josie's most profound fantasy of at last becoming one of the popular kids she has despised for so long. The story has it both ways on this point without ever being hypocritical.
Barrymore has always been an appealing screen personality, but this movie (on which she is the executive producer) reveals her as a true star and a great comedienne. It is a bold, brave, hyper-physical performance in which Barrymore deliberately makes herself as unattractive and klutzy as possible – but each nutty gesture is performed with a dexterity and grace that evoke a heady combination of Buster Keaton and French Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Modern romantic comedies often compare themselves, boastfully and pretentiously, with Hollywood classics of an earlier era like It Happened One Night (1934) or An Affair to Remember (1957). Never Been Kissed refers to just about every pop movie and cultural fad in recent memory, but it discreetly omits a tip of the hat towards the film it most pleasingly evokes, Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).
It is no small compliment to say that, thanks in large part to Drew Barrymore, the spirit of the great Sturges is once again among us.
© Adrian Martin
A Teen Moment
It takes ninety seconds to go to Teen Hell and to come back in Never Been Kissed. In films where adult characters revisit their adolescent years – through undercover narrative premises, or flashback memories, or (as here) both at once – a few crucial scenes tend to condense the entire teen genre, its iconography and familiar plot situations. Never Been Kissed speeds up this process even more.
Josie (Drew Barrymore) hits rock bottom in her (at first) hopeless attempt to fit back into High School; after a round of especially awful experiences on what her editor (John C. Reilly) refers to as the ‘All-Humiliation Network’, she shuts herself into a toilet cubicle (having vomited there) and sits, despondent on the floor, her back against the door. At the beginning of this ninety seconds, a crane shot spirals down to frame Josie in this sad position, as cleverly re-edited elements from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (held organ chord and choir) – with expressively reshuffled lyrics (“heaven help me” comes after “like a dream”)! – hang suspended in the air.
A beautiful fusion of image and music: during a close-up of Josie – and the at-first mysterious superimposition of swirling, garish, pink fabric – the snare drum in the song hits four times, the song gets into full swing, and so does the young ‘Josie Grossie’, twirling around happily. She’s got a date for the Prom with her dream boy from school, Billy (Denny Kirkwood), and she is lost in an excited smiling-dancing reverie, caught mainly in a master shot by director Raja Gosnell: Barrymore in full-out blissful-geek mode, from her bopping gestures and girly patter (“I’ll be out in a jiffer!”) to her elaborate dental work.
Just outside the front door, however, lies the greater trauma, the memory of which has been triggered by her modern-day grief: the intercut movements of Billy, standing, approaching the panning camera at cruise-speed in a limo, and a track into happy Josie on the porch, create an instantly ominous tension. Billy’s secret date ascends from the car alongside Billy – a nightmare in Josie’s vision – and eggs hurled right into her POV spot. As the first egg hits her face, the soundtrack cuts Madonna on the reverb of the word “dream”; as the second hits her dress (“Write a poem about this, geek”), she sobs in stark silence, bent over in distress. It’s sheer Lubitsch in its emotional economy: ten seconds in this hunched position, in the middle of a comedy like this, feels like an eternity of the darkest despair.
The choir-hum returns, with a reprise of the phrase “It’s like a dream”, then the snare drum, this time kicking off the ‘heavy bass’ instrumental bridge of the song, edited exactly to Josie’s running legs – but this is a breathtaking leap forward, to the adult-Josie-in-disguise. Three more shots of her running down the crowded school corridor – another nightmarish apprehension of space – then Josie is knocked unconscious by an opening door: suddenly it’s a goofy slapstick scene, and a new plot move is begun.
So many split-second switches and modulations of mood in this ninety seconds! Silly, sweet, tense, sad, rousing, sharp, horrific, reflective, and finally back to lightweight: all played out in physical actions and states. What glorious cinema the teen genre has given us!
© Adrian Martin November 2012