Movie Review: Never Been Kissed (1999)

As someone who’s interested in both bad movies and the business of film, one thing I find endlessly fascinating are the weird mismatched compilations of movies that you can find when out looking at movies. Weird groups of movies that are clearly thrown together by a distributor who has a warehouse of extra DVDs they need to clear out or movies that they know aren’t going to make money on their own, but will sell when you’re selling four movies for $10 or whatever the price may be.

So, out of indecision for what I was going to write about this week, I bought two of these at my local Target. One that’s selling “Romance of the ’90s” and one that’s selling “Romantic Comedies” (all are from the late 2000s /early 2010s). Since I actually remember liking this movie, I decided to give myself a little reprieve and start with “Romance of the ’90s” and at the end I’ll do a little comparison/ranking of the set which starts with Never Been Kissed.

Description (Amazon):  “In this hilarious, heartwarming comedy, Drew Barrymore shines as a budding journalist who’s determined to go from “geek” to “chic” when she is sent back to high school on her first undercover assignment.”

Main Character:

Drew Barrymore is Josie Geller, a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who has, as the title suggests, has never been kissed (or had a relationship) and generally had a pretty miserable high school life. She wants to be a real reporter rather than a copy editor, and jumps at the chance to go back to high school to do an expose on high school life.

Right away Josie really works as a character to me. She’s motivated by more than love, she has a serious goal, she has a job she’s good at but not the dream job. She feels like a real character, one with realistic motivations. I’d say she’s the most compelling main character yet on this blog, but that’s not saying all that much.

I generally think she’s compelling. Occasionally Barrymore’s performance veers into awkward nerd stereotype (especially when there are high school flashbacks), but for the most part she has an actual story.

Who are we supposed to be attracted to?: 

Michael Vartan is Sam Coulson, the English teacher, and honestly my biggest change in opinion since I watched this when I was 16-17. Not necessarily with the performance or the character – the performance is just fine, and he’s an attractive man who’s passionate about literature, honestly what’s not to love? However, the whole “he thinks she’s a student” thing that didn’t bother me when I was in high school super bothers me now that I’m in my 20s. He thinks she’s seventeen for the vast majority of the movie. Romantic tension shouldn’t build. It is just an inherently creepy concept that makes me so much more comfortable now that I’m an adult and teenagers seem like children.

Watching the Movie: 

This movie bothers me a lot more than when I watched it when I was actually in high school. Perhaps it’s the added perspective of getting older, but I became increasingly alarmed by the seemingly blase attitude this movie took towards statutory rape and attraction to underage characters. This doesn’t just happen between the main couple (where Sam Coulson thinks Josie Geller is his 17 year old student but she’s actually 25), but with her brother (who enrolls as a student to both help her become popular and relive his glory days) forming a relationship with a very explicitly 16 year old student, Josie being clearly attracted to the most popular guy in school (who is in fact named Guy), and with the surveillance team (yes, this is a thing) commenting on how attractive high school girls are. It’s something I somehow ignored when I was a high school student, but as an adult bothers me immensely.

If you get rid of how uncomfortable all of that is, Never Been Kissed is well plotted and well structured, albeit a little too formulaic. At this movie’s core is a really solid, well made romantic comedy. There are some things that are convoluted, which I’ll get to later, but for the most part character motivations make sense. I actually really like the dynamic of Josie and her brother Rob – Josie is reliving her high school days in part to get it right a second time, Rob is there to relive his glory days. I like this contrast a lot and wish that the movie had been done with it.

The other obstacle I faced was how much cringe comedy this employed. If you are sensitive to this then don’t watch Never Been Kissed, as it is non-stop cringe. I watched this movie in so many fragments over the past two evenings because there are so many awkward moments. At one point Josie goes to school in an outfit that’s not so much dated as it is inexplicable.

At another point Josie goes to an all-ages club where somehow adults and under 18 high school students mingle, has a pot brownie (which she doesn’t recognize as being a pot brownie despite multiple clear references to it not being just a plain brownie) and dancing around. I’m not terrible with cringe humor – I was a big fan of The Office for a while, I can handle it. However, it got to be almost too much at times.

Problem Elements: Every single reference to any characters being underage or in high school grossed me out in a major way. Why do you have to be like with , Never Been Kissed?

How convoluted is the plot?: For the most part I don’t mind the plot, actually. At the start it totally works – Josie wants to be a reporter, her boss wants someone to go undercover at a school (the boss being played by Garry “Please call me Garry” Marshall), she’s young so she gets picked, she goes and gets in over head works just fine. However its execution is sometimes bizarre. At the start of the movie it’s very clear that Josie didn’t do much in the way of research or preparation to go undercover – she trades cars with her brother so she has a dumpy car but at the same time doesn’t come up with any family history, doesn’t research non-crummy outfits, doesn’t actually come up with any sort of game plan.

At certain points it feels like the movie forgets that Josie is actually undercover, or at least Josie forgets it. She initially forms friendships with some of the high school nerds and doesn’t seem to want to come up with stories until she’s pressed. This would be one thing if she was happy as a copy editor and didn’t want to be a reporter, but since she desperately wants to be a reporter the way that she keeps on going “YEP I am a 17-year-old high school student, no need to be inconspicuous is almost bizarre. What’s also bizarre is how much the newspaper must be spending on this article – they have Josie full time at school, a surveillance guy in a van, and the newspaper staff take frequent breaks to come visit her. Is a story about high school really worth the thousands and thousands they are spending on it?

The ending is super convoluted too – at the end Josie writes a column that’s more “what I learned about high school by going back to it” than any sort of expose and has her love interest come meet her at a baseball game with a five minute time limit for him to get there for some reason and everyone reads her column and goes to cheer them on. There is no structural need for any of this to happen – it just feels like they needed a big romantic comedy moment and couldn’t figure out how to make it happen organically.

Also I don’t think adults that vaguelly “look like teenagers” (they really don’t) would normally be allowed to enroll in high school. Just a guess. But the fact that Josie’s brother Rob is able to enroll in high school as just “Rob” without any surname shows just how much this movie is willing to stretch any reality.

Who deserves better?: Never Been Kissed features a pretty great cast all around that are doing fairly well but I don’t know if necessarily need to do better. However, the one person I was surprised to see was the wonderful Octavia Spencer in one of her earlier film roles as Cynthia, who is basically there to react to Drew Barrymore (and Molly Shannon) in a couple of scenes. She has barely anything to do and I’m just glad she ended up with a pretty big film career because she is wonderful.

Could it be Fixed? : This is surprisingly difficult as I don’t know how it could be better – the movie does a good job of characterization, pacing, the plotting is a little cheesy but it works for a stereotypical rom-com. That said, I don’t know if there’s any way to fix the inherent creepiness of this. Drew Barrymore and Michael Vartan have some solid chemistry and both do well together, but it’s hard to get past the inherent “You think she’s 17 though” of it all. They try to throw a lampshade on it a few times by him commenting on how mature she is and asking if she’s really 17 but there is absolutely zero way that a relationship like this could be not creepy. Zero. Which is a shame because the individual moments are pretty sweet- Sam getting on a ferris wheel with Josie to save her some embarrassment even though he’s afraid of heights is cute, but it’s less cute when he remarks about being in a place of authority. I think this is a decent idea for a movie – who doesn’t have complicated feelings about high school? But I don’t think it could get less creepy than it is now.

Is it Fun to Watch?: Kind of? It’s easily the best movie I’ve covered here, and it has a great cast. However, the cringe humor is so strong that unless you’re nearly immune to it I suggest you go watch 21 Chump Street, the This American Life musical, instead.

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