A likable romantic comedy with an engaging premise and strong cast, “Never Been Kissed” looks set to further the winning ways of its star, Drew Barrymore. The actress proved in “The Wedding Singer” and “Ever After” that, given the right vehicle, she can drive it all the way to the box office. (“Home Fries” apparently needed a tune-up.) Here she plays a nerdy journalist on an undercover assignment to revisit high school and report on today’s youths. While pic’s high concept often defies logic and its story has about as many holes as a colander, Raja Gosnell’s sophomore directing effort has all the earmarks of a commercial hit. Bolstered by two weekends’ worth of sneaks, it should smoothly cross gender lines and become one of the season’s hot date movies.
Perhaps more than any comedy in recent memory, “Never Been Kissed” feels like a vintage John Hughes film, with traces of “Sixteen Candles” evident throughout. That’s probably a calculated effect, since Gosnell worked closely with Hughes as an editor on the first two “Home Alone” films before directing the series’ third installment.
In the script by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, Josie Geller (Barrymore), a mousy 25-year-old copy editor at a Chicago paper, gets the assignment of her dreams when her boss (Garry Marshall) insists she go back to high school to report on today’s teens. Why any editor would assign such a nebulous story is unknown, but Josie has the spunk and the doggedness to follow it through.
What she hasn’t got — nor apparently ever had — is a clue about how to be hip. Josie’s first day in school is marred by a hideously miscalculated outfit: white jeans and a pink feather boa suggested by her friend Anita (Molly Shannon). Josie’s awkwardness makes her anathema to the cool girls (Jessica Alba, Marley Shelton and Jordan Ladd), but endears her to the smart but equally nerdy Aldys (a stellar, sympathetic Leelee Sobieski). An A student, Josie catches the eye of her handsome and sensitive English teacher, Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan), who lectures the class on Rosalind’s process of self-discovery in “As You Like It.”
Similarly, Josie’s undercover turn prompts her to discover aspects of herself and revisit long-forgotten episodes. Intercut with present-day scenes are flashbacks of Josie’s experiences as an awkward teen (dubbed “Josie Grossie”) with braces, pimples and bad hair. She has a horrific prom memory as well and the gawkiness is played to devastating comic effect that is similar to Ben Stiller’s high school nerd in “There’s Something About Mary.”
Just when it seems that Josie’s second go-round in high school is slated to be as much of a failure as her first, and she risks losing the assignment, her brother Rob (David Arquette) enrolls in school to lend support. Insisting that all Josie needs is one cool person to anoint her, the naturally hip Rob gives her reputation a boost. But Josie’s newfound popularity and deepening friendship with Sam are threatened when her editor insists she write an expose on teacher-student relations, prompting a crucial prom-night decision that feels a tad too staged to be believable.
There are some cheap and easy laughs in “Kissed” — specifically, gags involving a hidden camera (worn by Josie at her boss’s insistence) that catches derriere shots of teenage girls and a nightclub stamp that marks “Loser” on Josie’s forehead.
And a scene in which Anita shows up at Josie’s class and masquerades as a Sex Ed instructor illustrates Gosnell and scripters Kohn and Silverstein’s predilection for laughs over logic.
But Barrymore shines throughout. Never more endearing than when she’s cutting loose on the dance floor after unknowingly ingesting her first hash brownie, she renders Josie a thoroughly winning and sympathetic heroine.
Tech aspects are fine. Production designer Steven Jordan gives the film a look that taps a collective nostalgia, recalling the ’80s Hughes movies as well as his own colorful high school sets from “Clueless” and “The Brady Bunch Movie.”
Alex Nepomniaschy’s widescreen lensing lends a frothy, not-quite-realistic quality aptly complemented in exaggerated costumes by designer Mona May (“Wedding Singer,” “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion”). The soundtrack, featuring smart new tunes and classics, could be a hot seller.