Too cool for school

Playing the ugly duckling is a role even Drew Barrymore can't handle.

Published April 9, 1999 10:38AM (EDT)

There are some indignities that Drew Barrymore should never be made to
suffer: Her sugar-bowl curves should never be hidden away in a boxy suit. Her hair should never be coiled into an uptight little bun. Her lips like cherries -- the kind of thing the Elizabethans used to write whole ballads about -- should never come anywhere near a tube of white lipstick. Unflattering costumes and makeup are just a few of the vagaries actors have to endure in the interest of acting. But there's something uncharitable about taking all that's wonderful about Barrymore -- an allegretto firefly, effervescent yet never so bubbly as to be exhausting -- and withholding it from us, as the lumpy comedy "Never Been Kissed" does. Instead of giving us just a few token scenes' worth of ugly ducklinghood and then restoring to us the Drew we know and love, the movie riffs on the character's awkwardness until we're practically numbed by it. Why bring a star like Barrymore to the party and not invite her to dance?

It's hard to know whom to blame. Barrymore produced the movie herself, and it's likely she welcomed the "stretch" of playing Josie Geller, a nerdy newspaper copy editor who's ultimately transformed by love into a butterfly (not that the two need to be mutually exclusive in the first place). As an actress, Barrymore has what it takes to make you believe in her character. The way she beams gawkily at a boy she likes, casually trips over her own feet, easily submerges herself in the clueless tackiness of her clothing -- they're all the earmarks of an actress who knows what she's doing.

And yet -- so what? The great bummer of "Never Been Kissed" is that it gives Barrymore the chance to act but bars her from working magic. Her Josie is a smart, sensible girl, the kind who knows the difference between "nauseated" and "nauseous" and who, gently but firmly, corrects the whole world when such issues come up. When she gets the chance to prove herself as a newspaper reporter, which is what she really wants to be, by returning to high school as an undercover student, she jumps at the chance -- only to realize that although she's fairly comfortable with her no-nonsense adult demeanor and innate intelligence, she hasn't completely outgrown her teenage awkwardness, nor her desire to be popular.

The movie's tiresome joke is that, even the second time around, Josie still can't get it right: Her first day at school, she shows up in tight white jeans and a cheap-looking feather boa (also sporting a horrible haircut and cadaverously pale makeup) -- a hapless stab in the dark at what "the young kids" are wearing. As the days go by, she gets slightly more happening -- but not by much.

Finally, she gets a boost when her ne'er-do-well older brother, Rob (David Arquette), decides he's going nowhere in his job (he works for a delivery service with an inexplicable Hawaiian theme) and decides to re-enroll in high school himself. Rob, who, unlike Josie, had always been part of the cool clique in school -- he's as close to a hunk as doofuses ever get -- hopes some high muckety-muck baseball scout will notice him and he'll get a second chance at the sports career he'd only halfheartedly pursued when he first had the chance. Just as Josie's coolness quotient begins to rise, it becomes more apparent that her English teacher (Michael Vartan, whose performance might have been shyly winning if he'd toned down the aw-shucks English-teacher charm a bit) is falling in love with her -- not knowing, of course, that she's really a grown-up like him.

Josie suffers the usual high-school cruelties (and relives some of her
original ones in flashback sequences), but screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein don't give them much of a twist. The most engaging characters in "Never Been Kissed" are the ones that hover on the periphery. Leelee Sobieski, as the brainy, uncool, calculus-club friend Josie almost discards as she ascends the social ladder, has a geeky dignity that you just know is about to turn willowy and irresistible -- her character is just on the cusp of the rest of her life, though she doesn't know it yet, and Sobieski, with her Mona Lisa half-smile, captures that perfectly. And Arquette, like the charming bonehead regular guy who effortlessly got all the dates in high school, practically walks off with the movie just by walking the bases. He beams with boyish, cocksure pride as he shows off his outfit for the high school prom (the theme is "Great Lovers Throughout History"): a half-buttoned white shirt, Ray-Bans, BVDs and sweat socks, ` la Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."

By the time of the big prom scene, Barrymore at last has her big
transformation. She's snared the cool guy at school as her date, but she
outshines him in her dusty-pink 16th century ball gown. The sight of
Barrymore in that dress is enough to take your breath away -- it's like a refresher course for anyone who might have forgotten how radiant she was in "Ever After" (although this particular dress only reinforces the idea that she's meant to be a blond). Barrymore is a woman of many different looks, but her two best ones are probably rosy-cheeked Elizabethan babe and late-20th century butterfly-barrette girl. It's a good thing that in "Never Been Kissed" she gets to wear at least one of them. It's just too bad that it's too little, too late.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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