Most Likely to Bomb … Neil Simon Should Sue

Most Likely to Bomb

Suffering through Never Been Kissed and The Out-of-Towners on the same day (or any day) is like eating bad clams–upsetting but not life-threatening, and eventually the pain goes away. Every time I ask “Does anybody know how to make movies anymore?” the answer is usually a fast “No,” but I have one friend who recently replied, “I’ve come to rather like bad movies because bad is all there is.” The question is, How bad does it get? In the case of the two alleged, brain-dead comedies I just mentioned, the answer is “intolerable.”

In Never Been Kissed , another misfire on the artillery range of mentally challenged teenage flicks, we are asked to believe that Drew Barrymore might pass for a glum, 25-year-old virgin (Mistake No. 1 is the assumption that there actually is such a thing) who works as a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times . Bland and overweight, she was the dorkiest creep in high school, and things don’t seem to be progressing. By day, her ideas get stolen by other reporters but she never gets an assignment of her own. By night, she needlepoints pillows for her bed and feeds her goldfish.

One day her big break arrives when her dopey boss (Garry Marshall, wildly chewing scenery as though on the verge of an aneurysm) sends her underground to enroll in her old school to get the scoop on teenage life. The gristle in this meatless stew centers on the problems of trying to be 17 again. Trading in her Buick LeSabre for a grungy hot rod, the once-rejected teen gross-out arrives, newly equipped in gaucho pants, marabou feathers and foxy curls, ready for a second chance to be campus jailbait, wearing a hidden camera so everyone at the Sun-Times can witness her every humiliation. Instead of reinventing herself as a popular new classmate, the poor geek attracts the sympathy of her dashing English teacher because she knows the difference between Troilus and Cressida, and learns to say things like “Completely rufus” and “Totally awesome.” It’s the kind of script that brings out the imbecile in everybody.

Somewhere about here you start wondering why, if she has only been out of high school herself for a few years, none of the faculty members remember her. She certainly hasn’t lost any weight since her pitiful flashbacks as the most unpopular girl in school. (On prom night, her date even pelted her with raw eggs.) To further challenge credulity, her doofus brother (David Arquette) enrolls himself in the student body and tells so many lies about her sexual prowess that she suddenly captivates the Barbie dolls, the nerds and even the English teacher (Michael Vartan, a Matthew McConaughey lookalike)–all of whom are unaware she’s setting them up for a tell-all story. I can’t say much more because I slept through the part where she grapples with her conscience for a byline. When I woke up, the editorial staff of the Sun-Times appeared to have staged a strike, ignoring things like deadlines and applauding their closed-circuit TVs as Ms. Barrymore was elected prom queen, duded up as Rosalind in As You Like It . Oh, yes, my friends, we’ll be paying for the surprise success of Shakespeare in Love for the rest of the year.

There isn’t one believable minute to be found in this labored bore, and it isn’t remotely amusing, either. Ms. Barrymore’s glazed charms are ambushed by both a witless script and the kind of amateurish direction that encourages her to behave like a grinning, cooing, bumbling birdbrain. I doubt if there is anyone like her at the Sun-Times who would even be given the responsibility of answering Roger Ebert’s phone. But before we cast her in the role of innocent, gullible Hollywood victim, please note the screen credit she assigned herself as “executive producer.” Meanwhile, writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, and director Raja Gosnell give the impression that Never Been Kissed has been perpetrated by student hacks who got lucky in film school. They all have a long road ahead before they can qualify as professionals.

Neil Simon Should Sue

My weakness for Goldie Hawn is the only thing that got me through The Out-of-Towners , an unnecessary, hyperventilated remake of the 1970 Neil Simon movie that was never any great shakes to begin with. The second time around is no charm, either. Adorable Goldie and the too-intelligent-to-play-idiots Steve Martin can’t compete with Sandy Dennis and Jack Lemmon in the original, but they’ve worked together long enough to develop their own special brand of chemistry, predictable as it is. So why is this movie so bereft of wit, originality and pleasure? For starters, nobody connected with it seems to believe one word of what is going on. The two stars act like village idiots and for whatever lame thread of credibility Neil Simon once had in mind, the hysterical direction by Sam Weisman serves as a wrecking ball.

Rewriting Neil Simon is a job for fools, but screenwriter Marc Lawrence plunges blindly ahead, eager for the label. As tiresome Midwesterners victimized by every contrived cliché New York has to offer, the misguided stars play characters who don’t have the horse sense to get out of the rain. Their plane is rerouted to Boston, their luggage is lost, they miss their train, their rental car piles into a wall of fish crates at the Fulton Fish Market, they get mugged by a con man pretending to be Andrew Lloyd Webber, their credit card has been run up to the max by a daughter who is not at home, a mastiff chases them, they end up in an armed robbery and seek refuge in a group therapy session for sexual dysfunctionals, they’re discovered having sex in Central Park by none other than Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. All this before they turn from mere slapstick robots into truly hateful people New Yorkers would love to send back home on the next Greyhound.

There’s an amazingly inane bit in which Goldie pretends to be a sleazy hooker to steal the key to a man’s hotel room so she can order an elaborate dinner from room service. Mr. Martin lands in jail, gets bombed on his cellmate’s LSD and hobbles down the street in an homage to Chaplin. Then they climb out of the hotel windows and dangle from the clock in an homage to Harold Lloyd. By the time they blackmail the hotel manager for being a transvestite (an amusing bit by John Cleese who knows crap when he falls in it and never fails to let us know it), the weary audience has lost all respect and sympathy. Not to mention interest. It’s not only dumb, but geographically impossible. One minute they’re on Canal Street, the next minute they’re in Times Square, and all on foot. At one point, they pass the Metropolitan Museum going the wrong way on a one-way street. But why torture you further? Mr. Simon is probably already on the phone with his attorneys.

The original was silly, but its snafus were rooted in plausibility. When Sandy Dennis whined ” Oh, my God! ” you wanted to say it with her. This time it’s Steve Martin who does all the mewling and kvetching while Goldie–looking too trim, sexy and smart to act like a fruitcake–remains severely hobbled by antics her old producers would have rejected on Laugh-In . They’re like Blondie and Dagwood gone berserk in a stupefyingly unfunny movie that is always 10 feet behind them. They’ve caused jubilation before and I hope they will again, but for The Out-of-Towners Ms. Hawn and Mr. Martin both swallowed a stupid pill. In the end, they decide to stay in town and live here, but what if we don’t want them? Its detractors are always accusing New York of being a foreign country. This movie makes a good case for entry visas.

Cook’s Tribute to Champion

There’s a rumor that the voices of angels are dubbed by Barbara Cook. I’m prepared to believe it. In her flawless new act at the Cafe Carlyle (through May 1), she makes music that can only be described as heavenly. In this spring saunter down memory lane, she is rummaging through a trunk of tunes from Broadway shows associated with the late singer-dancer-actor-choreographer-director Gower Champion. Since she never appeared in any of them, it means learning an entirely new repertoire, but she performs every song superbly, with confectionary arrangements by her longtime pianist Wally Harper.

From a wistfully romantic coupling of “Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment” ( Hello, Dolly! ) to a beautifully rendered, sensitively felt “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” ( Irene ), she honors Mr. Champion’s ability to turn an empty stage into a canvas of color, people, movement and life, bringing the songs alive as well as the characters who sang them. Turning perky, she makes daisies grow on “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and then, with her richly textured lyric soprano reduces her listeners to apt pupils with “I Got Lost in His Arms,” both inspired by Mr. Champion’s heralded Los Angeles production of Annie Get Your Gun with Debbie Reynolds.

Whether she is mining the luxurious vein of Al Dubin-Harry Warren songs from Mr. Champion’s final show 42nd Street (he died on opening night, leaving behind a show that ran eight years) or proving that sometimes the most breathtaking songs get lost in obscurity by sailing passionately into Bob Merrill’s exquisite “His Face” from Carnival , she leaves her inimitable stamp on everything she sings. Simultaneously warm and generous, before acting and singing the pants off “Look What Happened to Mabel,” she toasts the original star of Mack and Mabel with “Bernadette Peters was so damn good she practically owns this song, but what the hell?”

For pure enchantment and God-given talent, there is no other angel like Barbara Cook. Somebody up there likes her. Somebody down here feels the same way.