True Drew in Delightful No-Brainer, Plus an Uneasy, Edgy Go

Barrymore is all winsome charm in Never Been Kissed

After seeing Doug Liman's first effort, Swingers, I might have said the same thing about him. However, 30 minutes into a viewing of his second film, Go, I had doubts as to whether I could make it through to the end.

Set in the squalid underground of suburban Los Angeles, Go attempts to find comedy in the overlapping stories of five directionless young people during the 24-hour period leading up to a recent Christmas Day. Ronna (Sarah Polley) is a grocery-store check-out clerk trying to scrounge up enough money to keep from being evicted; Simon (Desmond Askew) is an opportunistic young Brit who makes his living as a smalltime dope peddler; Adam (Scott Wolf) and buddy Zack (Jay Mohr) (always seen together) are soap-opera actors trying to work their way out of a little run-in with the law; Claire (Katie Holmes) is another check-out clerk in the same store where Ronna works. Along with her friend Mannie (Nathan Bexton), Claire is forced from her role as passive onlooker and into the squalor.

The lack, here, is not one of talent. While watching Go, which was written by John August (God), I was impressed by the fluid manner in which Liman moves from one point of view to another and the masterful way in which he shifts from the comic to the tragic to the absurd without losing control of the film's tone. The problem is Liman's motives. I get the feeling that what he wanted most was to step up a rung in class and join the other big-time filmmakers--the Scorseses and Stones and Tarantinos. And if that was his intention, then he has failed miserably. Without a doubt, Go is a more ambitious movie than Swingers and has a greater sense of urgency and gravity. But what the filmmaker actually achieves with his sophomore effort is more the appearance of depth than the real thing.

The whole picture has the sort of edginess and hair-trigger volatility that Limon achieved only once in Swingers, when the member of one gang bumps into another and almost sparks a violent gun battle. The problem is that, even in Swingers, the scene doesn't work. You feel as if Liman is stretching for significance and falls flat.

In Go, Liman creates a vision of unrelieved depravity and amorality where none of the characters has a single redeeming human quality. It is nothing for Todd (Timothy Olyphant) to ask Ronna to show him her breasts as a condition for selling her Ecstacy, or, subsequently, for Ronna to dupe her customers by substituting cold medication for Ecstacy. It follows, then, that later on, when Adam and Zack commit a more serious crime, their only concern is whether they will get caught. In the world of Go, there is only violence and self-interest, and, as a result, the vision of humanity is as false as the one in which good always triumphs over evil, where violence is always punished, darkness is balanced by light, and honesty is its own reward.

Go strains for significance in every frame. But Liman hasn't developed fully enough either as a filmmaker or a thinker to support its demands on us. One of the most appealing things about Swingers was the absence of pretense. It never asked to be taken for more than what it is--which is a kind of extended exercise for actors. Swingers has style and a fresh sense of comedy, but not a particularly strong voice or point of view. What Go adds to the mix is a set of easily adopted assertions about the soullessness and amorality of the country's young people. In his desire to be a heavyweight, Liman has lost the very qualities that made that earlier work so refreshing and original.

By contrast, it is a complete lack of anything other than the desire to entertain in director Gosnell and the people who helped him create Never Been Kissed that makes that movie such a joy and a delight. And that goes for Barrymore, too. All she wants to do is make us giggle.

Never Been Kissed
Directed by Raja Gosnell; with Drew Barrymore.
Rated PG-13.

Directed by Doug Liman.

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