Sharp Cookie

Close, of course, can portray such a character to perfection; Cruella de Vil has nothing on Camille. The downside is that Close is almost too effective: Her character is so vile that it's hard, for the middle third of the movie, to watch her triumphantly wreaking havoc on everyone's lives. I was so overwrought at the sight of this horrible creature ruining everyone's lives that I almost wanted to walk out. As it turns out, that would have been a mistake: By its end, Cookie's Fortune has revealed itself as, well, a "feel-good" movie. But the extreme awfulness of Close's character can really prove a trial for delicate sensibilities.

Opens April 9 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Never Been Kissed
Directed by Raja Gosnell

Directed by Doug Liman

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 diamond surrounded by a stadium full of people who, it seems, have come not to see a baseball 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. Marching toward her job 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 ambition and has made it clear that she has no intention of spending the rest of her life shackled to a copy desk. She wants to be a writer and has dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged reporter.

Having decided that high school is the best place to find all the hot stories, the paper's quixotic editor-in-chiefcontinued on next pagecontinued from previous page(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.

At first, Josie is thrilled to get the assignment. 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, in fact, it is 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.

In writing their script, first-time screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein don't seem to have had anything pressing on their minds, and they can be applauded for not trying to make it look as though they did. This is also true for director Raja Gosnell, a former film editor: His ambition seems to be to keep the action moving and the pace brisk. Barrymore, making her debut here not only as an executive producer but also as the 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.

That Josie has already run the high-school gauntlet before doesn't seem to have given her much of an advantage. In fact, in the beginning, 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 a stringy-haired beanpole named 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) -- who hold the key not just to the upper echelons of popularity but to the best stories, too. Without a little help from Rob, who signs up for a second tour himself, and boosting her "coolness quotient" by dropping a few choice lies about her hell-raisin' past, these girls might have remained aloof and unavailable.

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