True Drew's Delight and an Edgy Go

Courage comes in an infinite variety of forms and faces, but who among us would be brave enough to go back and 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 stadium full of people who, it seems, have come not to see a 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. 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 made it clear she has no intention of spending the rest of her life shackled to that job. She dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged reporter.

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.

Even after brother Rob (David Arquette) reminds her just what a hell on earth high school had been for her, conjuring up hurtful images of her days as "Josie Grossie" to make his point, she remains steadfast in her determination to get the story.

Though at the outset Never Been Kissed may look like a picture about a journalist on the make, it is actually 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.

First-time screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein can be applauded for not trying to make it look as though they had anything pressing on their minds. This is also true for director Raja Gosnell, whose ambition seems to be to keep the action moving and the pace brisk. Barrymore, making her debut as an executive producer and 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.

In the beginning of her undercover work, 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 stringy-haired beanpole Aldys (Leelee Sobieski), the Denominators become Josie's posse, but it's the other group, the popular girls -- led by the jailbait triumvirate of Kirsten (Jessica Alba), Kristin (Marley Shelton) and Gibby (Jordan Ladd).

To keep tabs on Josie while she's on the job, the boss orders her to wear a tiny camera and a microphone. And back at the paper her colleagues spend their lunch breaks viewing Josie's "broadcasts" as if they were tuning in to a soap opera. 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 she does next.

The same might have been said after seeing Doug Liman's first effort, Swingers. However, 30 minutes into a viewing of 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 a recent 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) (always seen together) are soap-opera actors trying to work their way out of a little run-in with the law; Claire (Katie Holmes) is another check-out clerk in Ronna's store. Along with her friend Mannie (Nathan Bexton), Claire is forced from her role as passive onlooker and into the squalor.

Talent is not lacking in Go, which was written by John August (God). Liman was impressive in the fluid manner in which he moves from one point of view to another and 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 and join the other big-time filmmakers: the Scorceses and Stones and Tarantinos. If that was his intention, he failed miserably.

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 ecstasy, or for Ronna to dupe her customers by substituting cold medication for ecstasy. It follows that when Adam and Zack commit a more serious crime, their only concern is not getting caught. In the world of Go, there is only violence and self-interest. As a result, the vision of humanity is as false as the one in which good always triumphs over evil, 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 a thinker to support its 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 was: 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 and amorality of the country's young people. In his desire to be a heavyweight, Liman has lost the very qualities that made that earlier work so refreshing and original.

By contrast, director Gosnell and the people who helped him create Never Been Kissed had only the desire to entertain, which makes their 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.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Raja Gosnell. With Drew Barrymore, David Arquette, Michael Vartan and Garry Marshall.

Rated R.
Directed by Doug Liman. With Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew, Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr and Timothy Olyphant.

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