The Anti-Pretty Women: Meet the Girls Who Say No

Raja Gosnell’s Never Been Kissed , from a screenplay by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Jenny Bicks, emerges unexpectedly as the most exhilarating American movie I have seen this year–which isn’t saying much. Most of the credit should go to Drew Barrymore, who has taken charge of her career with her own production company, without falling flat on her pretty face through excessive egocentricity. What is demonstrated in Never Been Kissed is that Ms. Barrymore can carry a mainstream picture without being buttressed by a bankable male star.

One of her notable coups is her ability to simultaneously get big laughs and audience sympathy by making her character the butt of ridicule and humiliation in that most hellish of hellholes for most us through the ages: high school! Ms. Barrymore’s Josie Geller gets to go through it twice without any supernatural or time-machine intervention. She is compelled as a nerdy, 25-year-old copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times to get her big break as an investigative reporter by going undercover as a faux 12-year-old high school student to dish the dirt on today’s kids and their teachers.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? And much too familiar besides. Haven’t I been frothing at the mouth lately in print over all the teenage garbage foisted on us by the first-week’s-gross-conscious Hollywood studios? Well, Ms. Barrymore and company have made me eat my words with a display of wit, warmth and sheer comic energy similar to that of Groundhog Day , Clueless and, yes, Shakespeare in Love . Indeed, Ms. Barrymore’s Josie Geller is so intuitively Shakespearean that her royal Barrymore ancestors, John, Ethel and Lionel, should be popping the bubbly in Actors’ Heaven.

What makes Josie so endearing as a character is her desperate let’s-be-friends smile in the most unpromisingly grotesque situations. But the goofy side of her never obliterates her warm sensuality, made all the more alluring by her emotional reticence. She is ably supported by David Arquette as her slightly dysfunctional but loyal brother; Molly Shannon as her best friend at the office and a comical man-eater besides; John C. Reilly as her hard-boiled and softhearted boss; Michael Vartan as her heartthrob English teacher (of Shakespeare, what else?); Leelee Sobieski as her nerdy best friend the second time around, and Jeremy Jordan as the dreamboat who takes her to the prom the second time, thus finally erasing the trauma of the horrible first time, when she was fat and ugly.

Much of the story line can be dismissed as excessively derivative–even if one believes, as I do, that there can never be too much of Shakespeare in mainstream movies. Still, there is the utterly banal and utterly predictable misunderstanding situation mixed with a dash of The Truman Show via hidden lapel camera and microphone. But the script pulls a clever switch by having Josie disconnect the camera and microphone at the beginning of her confession to the teacher, thus frustrating the enthralled viewers in the newspaper office but freeing the story line from an inessential “obligatory scene.”

Trust me, Ms. Barrymore transcends the limits of youthful fantasy and folly to bring the spirit of springtime and emotional maturity onto the silver screen. Josie is a dream come true, such as I haven’t seen since the faux-Lolita of Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor (1942).

Back then, the censors forced the girls to say No, and they did so with style. Now, with the censors gone, the girls say Yes too easily, and the romance goes out the window. But Ms. Barrymore’s Josie in Never Been Kissed and newcomer Julia Stiles’ Katarina (Kat) Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You may be the harbingers of what may seem like an antipromiscuity backlash, but may in fact represent a rediscovery of the essence of Shakespearean romance with its disguises and gender reversals serving to give young women time to explore their feelings before surrendering their hearts.

Yet another terrific movie about high school students in yet another fantasy high school with yet another dazzling female performance, this time by Ms. Stiles, with her expertly timed line readings of witty put-downs and brushoffs–reminding me of such 30′s comediennes as Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert–Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You , from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, presents me with the problem of maintaining my credibility with my readers while I try to explain why I am recommending two high school films in the same week.

What particularly heartens me about shrewish Kat is that she is given such sharp feminist and mock-feminist lines to read from the screenplay by Ms. Lutz and Ms. Smith. It remains to be seen whether Ms. Stiles will be as lucky again in the characters she is given to play. There is no shortage of performing talent these days. There is only a lack of audacity in giving the green light to projects that seem to fly in the face of the conventional box-office wisdom.

The rest of the film comes up with more than its share of quirks and twists in which no fewer than seven teenage characters are involved in an intrigue that is barely worth synopsizing in the first place. The film is based very loosely on the Bard’s Taming of the Shrew with two sisters, Kat and Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik), and their single father Walter Stratford (Larry Miller), who is so obsessed with the threatened virginity of his daughters that he forbids Bianca to go out on a date until her older sister Kat does likewise. The thinking is that, since Kat is a notoriously feminist man-hater, both sisters will be grounded until their graduation. Fat chance.

As the plot thickens, Bianca is wooed by two suitors, Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan) rich, smug and obnoxious, and Cameron James (Joseph-Gordon Levitt), sincere, idealistic and romantic. Joey pays a mysteriously moody Heathcliff-type student coyly named Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to date Kat so that he can make a move on Bianca. Cameron is infatuated with Bianca in his own pitifully clumsy way. So there is not much suspense there. What is slightly unusual is that Bianca turns out to be more sensible and sympathetic than the formula demands, and Kat and her father have one lovely scene reminiscent of the old Molly Ringwald movies for John Hughes.

Not everything works, and very little matters in these two high school romances, but they both bounce along on their own buoyant high spirits. For one thing, they manage to serve as the closest thing to the old musicals, and for another, Ms. Barrymore and Ms. Stiles make saying No exquisitely romantic.

You’re Not Dreaming, There Is No Real Plot

Érick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels , from a screenplay by Mr. Zonca, has fully lived up to its rave advance notices from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, at which its two female co-leads shared the Golden Palm for Best Actress. Élodie Bouchez plays Isa, a scruffy happy-go-lucky vagabond traveling with her rucksack from city to city, taking odd jobs when she can find them, and somehow surviving with her spirit intact. Natacha Régnier plays Marie, moodier and less mercurial than Isa. The two young women meet in a garment factory, and Marie decides to let Isa in on her temporary house-sitting gig for a married couple, whose daughter is in a coma.

Isa and Marie never become the most steadfast of friends because of the contrasting trajectories of their personal destinies. There is not much else to the plot. The three male characters who cross the paths of the two roommates serve to illuminate the differences between Isa and Marie more than to project personal destinies of their own.

Fortunately, Ms. Bouchez and Ms. Régnier exude enough talent and charisma to enliven the drably proletarian pallor of the milieu. Mr. Zonca has created a piece of morbidly erotic realism, and taken it to a tentative conclusion. While I was watching the movie, I was thoroughly entertained by the volatile chemistry between the two actresses and the two contrasting characters they played. But the more and more I have thought about it since, the less and less I remember about what held my undivided attention at the time. What the movie lacks are magically defining moments that can never be forgotten. This is frequently the problem with anti-Aristotelian enterprises with sociologically diminished characters in the larger scheme of things offered on the altar of a grayish realism.

London Suburbia, Beyond the Beatles

Philip Saville’s Metroland , from the screenplay by Adrian Hodges, based on the novel by Julian Barnes, presents a positive view of British suburbia as the final destination of a once vaguely artistic young man with a yen for the liberating bohemianism of Paris. The time is the early 60′s before Carnaby Street and the Beatles transformed the deadly conformism of British life into the temporarily chic look and sound of youthful rebellion.

Chris (Christian Bale) and Toni (Lee Ross) sneer at all things British and bourgeois in their naïve Francophilia. Chris actually takes off for Paris, where he finally gets properly and graphically laid by a sophisticated Frenchwoman (Elsa Zylberstein), but when he meets a young and proper English girl named Marion (Emily Watson), he realizes that sex alone is not enough for a lasting relationship. Chris returns to England with Marion, marries her, has a child and settles down with a steady job in Metroland, described in the production notes as the suburban sprawl at the end of London’s Underground Metropolitan Line.

Meanwhile, Toni has gone around the world in search of adventure, and now enjoys an open marriage with an American heiress. He returns to Metroland to coax Chris into leaving his wife and child for freedom beyond Metroland. The film is almost as sketchy and schematic as it sounds, but the acting, particularly Ms. Watson’s as the decisively levelheaded wife, takes up much of the slack.