Kissing Jessica Stein

Kissing Jessica Stein

USA, 2001. Rated R. 96 minutes.

Cast: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen, Tovah Feldshuh, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Mastro, Carson Elrod, David Aaron Baker, Jan Hamm, Robert Ari
Writers: Heather Juergensen, Jennifer Westfeldt
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Producers: Eden Wurmfeld, Brad Zions
Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld



Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

The statement "There's nothing new under the sun" seems to be particularly applicable to romantic comedies. Every once in awhile a true original like Bridget Jones's Diary or High Fidelity comes along, but for the most part, romantic comedies are a numbing sequence of Unlikely Couples who fall in love via Musical Montage, but then encounter some Obstacle to their union, until a Heartfelt Talk with a close friend or family member causes one to come to their senses, and rush off to catch the other in the Nick of Time.

Kissing Jessica Stein, a new independent romantic comedy from Fox Searchlight, doesn't exactly reinvent the genre, but finds enough new wrinkles to go along with one big twist. The romance is not straight-boy-meets-straight-girl, nor is it even gay-girl (or boy)-meets-gay-girl (or boy), nor even the "alternative" scenario of straight-boy-meets-gay-girl (or vice versa) that we've seen in films like Chasing Amy. Exploring one of the few remaining pairings, Kissing Jessica Stein is straight-girl-meets-straight-girl.

Despite a premise that would give Jerry Falwell a conniption fit, Kissing Jessica Stein doesn't open with much promise of originality. In fact, it threatens you with a trip through romantic comedy hell. Oh no…it's the montage of implausibly bad dates! It's the all-men-are-assholes motif! Here come the wacky and/or gay best friends! The two protagonists give lesbianism a shot because--seemingly--all men are jerks. Such monolithic points of view weaken romantic comedies, regardless of how funny they're intended to be.

Kissing Jessica Stein gets better. Much much better.

The basics are as follows: Indie NYC romcom, w/attitude. Bored bi-curious F places F-seeks-F ad in paper. Straight F notes lead quote from fave author. She responds out of romantic desperation. Thusly do Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen) and Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) enter the right situation for the wrong reasons.Juergensen and Westfeldt

Without sacrificing the laughs, Kissing Jessica Stein becomes dramatically more realistic as it progresses, confronting all the tough issues that it at first avoids. The Big Issue, of course, is whether these women are truly homosexual or just screwing around, so to speak. It's a key question at a time when a nature versus nurture debate rages over the causes of homosexuality. Is it a product of genetics or of environment during one's formative years?

Westfeldt and Juergensen, who also wrote the film, knew they were stepping onto muddy terrain. According to them, "We did not set out to issue a grand edict about sexual orientation and what determines it. Rather, we were interested in exploring the notion of a sexual continuum… There is a unique bond that exists between women in friendship…and, for many of us, the sole way it differs [from a relationship with a lover] is the absence of sex." They add, "we hope that each character's journey can be perceived as a unique one, rather than some generalized pronouncement on sexual identity."

They may not have set out to issue a general pronouncement about sexual orientation, but they do make one. As becomes evident by the film's conclusion, they are arguing that no generalized pronouncement is actually possible, because everyone's sexual identity is individual and unique.

While the very existence of this movie may seem a product of the so-called "lesbian chic," Kissing Jessica Stein does not give in to the voyeurs. Helen and Jessica make out a little on camera, but not much. There is no nudity, and the sex is only implied. Kissing Jessica Stein earns its R rating for language and perhaps, given the conservatism of the MPAA, its homosexual theme.

In fact, male voyeurs who get off on "girl-on-girl action" get skewered in a forced scene (the most unnatural and unfunny scene in the movie) shoehorned into the film specifically to skewer them, not to advance the plot in any way. The scene is unnecessary, as is the early montage of Jessica's horrible dating experiences with men. One problem with the montage is that it undermines the truthfulness of a scathingly effective speech by Jessica's boss Josh (Scott Cohen), in which he rakes Jessica over the coals for being too picky. If no one is ever good enough, he argues, then the problem is with you and not them. Josh is the wild card in this script. He's a nosy jerk, but he seems to have an ability to see Jessica clearly, through all of her self-constructed bullshit. Initially the asshole boss/ex, his character gradually acquires depth.

Westfeldt and Juergensen don't come across like movie actresses, but as the stage actresses they are. Juergensen is a complete newcomer to the screen, while Westfeldt has done some television and the odd movie. Much of the screenplay was derived from improvisational exercises intended for an off-off-Broadway night of comedic sketches in 1997, a full three years before shooting began on the film. Remarkably, their performances retain the freshness of improvisational exercises, as if the actresses are performing the material for the first time.

Kissing Jessica Stein is a shot of espresso for the tired romantic-comedy genre. Not only does it rework the formulas, but the resolution is predicated on the characters having learned to know themselves better, not just on some trite platitude like, "Love is all that matters." Westfeldt and Juergensen's obvious enthusiasm, clever script, and ingenuous acting make almost every moment of Kissing Jessica Stein a pleasure, once you're past the opening genre clichés. In the end, Kissing Jessica Stein has more in common with the best Woody Allen films of the 70s and 80s (Jessica's neuroses in particular are reminiscent of Annie Hall) than it does with the Meg Ryan movies of today. Hopefully, Kissing Jessica Stein will find its way out of the art-house theaters of New York and Los Angeles into more general release. If not, look for it on video down the road.


Review © February 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Fox and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.

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