As I’ve noted before, I’m far from the target audience for romantic comedies, so normally I would never give Never Been Kissed a second glance. But I’m also something of a completist by nature. The movie was one of ten digital downloads I received free from VUDU (the service’s choice of movies, not mine, obviously), and I can’t stand to have a film in my collection remain unwatched indefinitely. I own it, I can’t get rid of it, I might as well watch it at least once.
Of course, I went into this with no small amount of skepticism. The premise of the film is fairly ridiculous. Drew Barrymore, as a would-be journalist in her mid-20s, is sent back to high school to do some undercover investigative journalism. It didn’t sound like an idea with promise, especially for a rom-com; it might conceivably have worked for a straight-up comedy had it been written with that in mind. But as it turned out, the film was even more pitifully absurd than I had anticipated.
One way or another, Garry Marshall is always involved in these things.
Let me get the niceties out of the way first. The ability of the actors is not in question here. They do reasonably well with what they’re given, and any problem with believing their characters is due to the script, not their performances. Barrymore is capable of acting shy and withdrawn as mousy Josie Geller, and David Arquette does come across as a more gregarious older brother. (Molly Shannon is given third credit on the poster, but there’s no justification for this, as her character is just a standard “sassy friend” with no purpose, prominence, or good lines.) John C. Reilly turns in a competent if unimaginative performance as Josie’s superior, and Garry Marshall is actually kind of entertaining as the same type of over-the-top boss that he usually plays.
I’ll even be somewhat nice to director Raja Gosnell. It’s not as though there are any glaring flaws in the pacing or in how shots are framed, or any technical aspects of the filming itself. It’s competently put together, for the most part, albeit not superbly put together. Of course, Gosnell’s later work consists of Big Momma’s House, Scooby Doo and The Smurfs, so expecting greatness here would have been too much to ask.
But no, the real problem here is the script. First up is the core premise, which is that the 20-something Barrymore can pass for a high school student. While it has occasionally been done in real life (the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High was based on a writer’s experience of doing the same), it’s still generally implausible. While it’s harder to tell young adult age groups apart as you get older, it’s not so hard for the people in those age groups. High schoolers, who can usually differentiate each other by year on sight, aren’t going to be fooled by most 23-year-olds. And while Barrymore is relatively young-looking, she’s still obviously not a teenager. David Arquette, who also gets into the act, is even less convincing as someone who could pass for a teenager. There’s also the question of why it’s so easy for them to work their way into the school in the first place, as it appears to be completely without the knowledge of any school officials.
Weapons checks at the door, but apparently nobody looks twice at paperwork.
The casting agency gets around the issue of Barrymore looking older than her classmates by cheating. Not that it’s an uncommon cheat, of course; it’s the usual Hollywood act of pretending that a 25-year-old is a teenager. While there are a few genuine teenagers in the cast of classmates, most of them are played by actors as old as Barrymore or older; Jeremy Jordan, who plays the “cool guy” of the senior class, was born a few years before Drew. (Perhaps the entire school is a bunch of repressed college-aged students?) “Adult” characters in the film are mostly in their thirties and early forties, to vainly try and maintain the illusion that they’re substantially older than the “kids” and those who are pretending to be kids.
The other critical illusion the plot demands is the notion that Drew Barrymore could be a plain and mousy wallflower who was unnoticed by teenaged guys both in her original high school and her covert reinsertion. The basic problem here is that, like most romantic comedy stars, Barrymore’s fame is dependent on the fact that she isn’t plain and mousy. So it’s up to the costume and makeup crew to make Drew Barrymore look like someone other than Drew Barrymore. Frumpy clothes and hair don’t really get the job done, but the makeup admittedly succeeds at making her look homely. Unfortunately, it goes a little too far, and makes her look like she’s auditioning for the remake of Night of the Living Dead.
Braaaaains… this movie needs braaaaains…
Of course, as Barrymore’s character rises in popularity, the uglifying makeup gradually comes off, making this a particularly insulting variation of “beautiful all along”. The whole “ugly duckling” aspect of the storyline remains hard to credit, especially when it’s paralleled with one of the high school’s current nerd-girls, played by Leelee Sobieski (one of the few actors to actually be the age of her character). So not only is the film expecting us to believe that nobody is interested in Drew Barrymore, teenaged or adult, it’s expecting us to believe that teenaged boys wouldn’t be interested in a teenaged Leelee Sobieski. With suspension of disbelief already strained to the breaking point by David Arquette pretending to be a high schooler while pushing 30, the film is simply asking too much credulity from its audience.
It also asks the audience to laugh at some frankly creepy situations. Arquette’s character acquires a girlfriend who wants to lose her virginity to him. Barrymore’s develops a crush on the cool guy in class, and also a burgeoning relationship with her English teacher (Michael Vartan), who believes her to be the high school student she’s posing as. Only the last of these relationships is played for drama, with John C. Reilly’s character suggesting that’s the story Josie should go with (the purpose of this morally-questionable infiltration being undecided until after it began), and Josie feeling that it would be a betrayal to set the guy up like that. The other two relationships? Played for deeply uncomfortable laughs.
Ah, yes. The “laughs”. This is a romantic comedy that at least attempts the comedy, but it’s cringe-worthy all the way through. Awkward attempts to avoid having its “heroes” commit statutory rape encompass a good part of the jokes. If that doesn’t leave the audience feeling squicky, one of the ways Arquette’s character helps Barrymore’s become popular is by spreading a rumor that they slept together. The high schoolers don’t know they’re really brother and sister — a weak joke near the end reveals he somehow enrolled without a surname — but we do. The comedy throughout the film is more of the same, along with a healthy dose of the standard “socially awkward” jokes about high schoolers. Even at its best, it’s tired, and it’s always going for the cringe-laugh, which is not much of a laugh at all.
Of course, the non-comedic aspects tend to be full of cringe-worthy moments as well. That title? Josie asserts to her co-worker girlfriends that she has, in fact, been kissed — but she hasn’t been kissed kissed. She hasn’t had “that magical kiss” where the sun shines down and everything goes in slow motion and you know it’s “the one”. Yes, the film comes out and has her state all this directly. I have to at least give it credit for honesty about what sort of film it is. But between awkward jokes and overly saccharine romantic ideals, this becomes a highly obnoxious movie.
This film regularly had me rolling my eyes, and I mean regular as clockwork. The “kiss” conversation came early on, and I checked the clock — I’d been expecting an eye-rolling moment from the beginning and wanted to see how far into it I’d gotten before the first one came. Six minutes had passed. A short time later another eye-rolling moment came, and I glanced at the clock again. 12 minutes from the start of the movie. It finally broke free of the regularity in the last twenty minutes or so of the movie (by ramping it up), but for most of it, there was a completely unbelievable moment within 15 seconds of every six-minute interval. People used to get by with timepieces that were less reliable than that.
Usually I can at least see why fans of a particular genre might like a certain film. But in this case, it’s beyond me. The story is unbelievable, the characters are unmemorable, the jokes are unfunny and the romances are unconvincing and generally kind of creepy. I may not enjoy most romantic comedies, but I can’t see why anybody would want to watch one that doesn’t succeed at either the romance or the comedy. Never Been Kissed is a film which should never be watched.