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REVIEW: Kisses and High-Fives; “Kissing Jessica Stein” Shines New Light on a Familiar Genre

REVIEW: Kisses and High-Fives; "Kissing Jessica Stein" Shines New Light on a Familiar Genre

REVIEW: Kisses and High-Fives; "Kissing Jessica Stein" Shines New Light on a Familiar Genre

by G. Allen Johnson

(indieWIRE/03.12.02) — Sorry to disagree with Dooley Wilson, but a kiss is not just a kiss. At least, that’s what a young newspaper copy editor in Manhattan finds out in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” a smart — really smart — romantic comedy.

There’s a great story behind this great story, and it stems from the perseverance of lead actresses Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt. The Fox Searchlight release may be directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who does an excellent job, but the auteurs are clearly Juergensen and Westfeldt. These two struggling actresses met and clicked in the Catskills in the mid-’90s and, after bouncing ideas off each other, hammered out the first draft of “Kissing Jessica Stein” four years ago.

Together, they shepherded the project into this $1 million production, which they co-produced as well as co-wrote and co-starred. If there’s any justice in the film world, their go-for-broke tenacity should pay off with not only handsome box-office returns but also hopefully prominent roles in future movies. These women rock.

“Kissing Jessica Stein” was, as both Juergensen and Westfeldt admitted while attending a recent screening in San Francisco, inspired by “Annie Hall,” but there should be giddy recognition for those whose cultural awareness stops at “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” Stein (Westfeldt) is a nervous beauty in the Helen Hunt/Leelee Sobieski mold, under pressure to get married by her traditional (in the Long Island mold) Jewish mother (Tovah Feldshuh, in all her nagging glory).

Stein herself is tired of being single — she goes through the usual assortment of bad first dates, and she ignores the frustrated vibes sent out by her old family friend, Josh (Scott Cohen), who also happens to be her boss. She’s a tad high-strung; one guy who tries to pick her up at the gym, in searching for something to say after her blow-off, tells her, “You seem so focused on your workout …”

Not having dated for a year, and jealous of her brother for finding happiness — she reacts to his engagement with shock rather than joy — Jessica becomes intrigued by a personal ad that quotes a favorite poet of hers. The catch: the ad is listed under the “women seeking women” section. In a fit of sudden irrationality, she answers the ad anyway.

Uptight and socially conservative, Jessica meets her opposite in Helen (Juergensen), a gallery owner whose sexual liberation borders on nymphomania. She has quite a “friends-plus” program going — by the time she meets Jessica, we have seen several of her sexual encounters with both male and female friends.

They meet in a coffee shop, and of course, Jessica immediately tries to back out. So begins the dance, and the next 45 minutes or so features a remarkable stretch of writing and acting by Westfeldt and Juergensen. Jessica is so conservatively neurotic she can barely date men, so the fact that her coercion into trying lesbianism comes off as both believable and hilarious is impressive.

After all, this is a woman who won’t tell her secret thoughts to her analyst. “It’s private,” she reasons. Helen may be uninhibited, but she’s also well-grounded — aware of who she is and confident in herself. She becomes the rock in the relationship, though certain experiments go awry, such as her attempt to get Jessica to try yoga, on the theory that it may help alleviate some of her neuroticism. “I don’t think I could sit still that long,” Jessica says. “I’d panic.”

After a very tentative mating dance, the relationship consummates with a kiss, after which the new couple high-fives each other. But stepping where no Stein has gone before is one thing; coming out to friends and family is another. The second half of “Kissing Jessica Stein” showcases the skills of the screenwriters as well as Herman-Wurmfeld, whose measured restraint complements the work quite well. While never taking itself too seriously, the film has demanding story structure and characters, yet remains accessible.

Juergensen, Westfeldt and Herman-Wurmfeld have created the best romantic comedy since Valerie Breiman‘s “Love & Sex” two years ago. Maybe the lasting message of “Kissing Jessica Stein” is that a kiss may not be just a kiss, but an orgasm is an orgasm. In other words, lasting emotional happiness is more difficult to achieve, and this sharp comedy knows it very well.

Its intelligence is exemplified in its wonderful ending. At the San Francisco screening, Westfeldt was greeting moviegoers filing out of the theater, when, she recalls, “Some women just told us, ‘Love your movie! The ending sucked!”’

Actually, that ending, just right for this picture, elevates “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which up to that point had so much going for it already, into something very special indeed.

“Kissing Jessica Stein” opens tomorrow in select cities.

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