Kissing Jessica Stein
review by Elias Savada, 22 March 2002
Smart and sassy, here is one
helluva terrific word-of-mouth feature. Watch it, then tell all your
friends to see it. This romantic comedy about two women who find
love and laughs in New York City, is a charming winner of hearts.
And Woody Allen is no longer the only neurotic poster child for the
Empire State's biggest city; Heather Juergensen's semi-introverted
Jessica Stein is a beautiful, winsome gal. Sometimes she dresses up
as Annie Hall. Sensitive, straight, and straightforward, even if
she's particularly overwrought in the simpleminded,
"self-deprecating" men that she meets. Well-read (the books and
magazines cover the floors of her quaint Manhattan apartment) and an
aspiring, albeit private, artist, she suffers a dead end job and
just a few containers of left-over Chinese in the fridge. Jessica's
a hopeless romantic who can't find the right guy in a
ninety-six-minute film (life is longer, so who knows…)—or have her
overbearing Jewish Mother find him for her. So when Kismet strikes
her apparently only emotional chord (through the Village Voice
personal ads, of course) in hip, sexy, gregarious, and bored
shiksa Helen Cooper (Jennifer Westfeldt), manager of the trendy
Schuller Gallery, both women experiment with their first lesbian
It's an affair of comically
confusing proportions. Two steps forward, one step back, and a few
cross town—with Helen's gay friends Sebastian (Carson Elrod) and
Martin (Michael Mastro) offering some amusing Lesbianism for
Dummies wisdom—for good measure as they stumble into their first
kiss (with Barry White warbling I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little
More, Baby), their first sex, and what might be love. The how-to
books and pamphlets follow later. Then the high-fives. The
exceedingly loquacious Jessica is turned on by Helen's marinating
personality and her ability not to make linguistic missteps, a pet
peeve that has destroyed most of Jessica's previous dates and
relationships. And boy can they have fun discussing beauty tips,
clothing, and lesbian accessories. It's like guys talking sports,
getting all excited. They become lovers and best friends.
Jessica's life, as it is, has been
revolving around her job as an assistant copywriter at The
Tribune, an alternative news weekly. Josh Meyers (Scott Cohen),
her boss and former lover, has his own case of writer/lover's block
that figures prominently in the film, and Jessica's early funk turns
downright morose when her brother (and Josh's college buddy)
announces his marital engagement. Toss in Jessica's friend,
co-worker Joan (Jackie Hoffman), a wacky, pregnant, and very
entertaining snoop, and you might end up thinking these people's
daytime antics are merely soap opera scripts. Not true. The dialogue
elevates them above the mundane.
From the opening scene you're won
over. Set in a suburban New York synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jewish
day of forgiveness, Jessica, her mother Judy (a marvelous spin on an
old-fashioned stereotype by Tovah Feldshuh) and her grandmother
Esther (Esther Wurmfeld, the director's and producer Eden Wurmfeld's
grandmother) are deep in thought…about men, while the rest of the
congregation is deep in prayer. Judy is kvelling over
Ben Feldman, a Vice President with J.P. Morgan, while Jessica is
getting upset with the constant pile of men her mother is throwing
at her, even if it's only with the best of intentions. The tension,
and their voices, escalate above the small din in the sanctuary,
until Jessica blurts out "Will you shut up! I'm atoning!" Cue the
congregants wide-eyed amazement and the opening credits. The fun is
only just beginning.
technical notes, because they're interesting. The film's genesis
began as a night of New York sketch comedy, of two Laura Ashley-clad
"girly-girls" meeting to negotiate how to become lesbians. That
evolved into a play Lipschtick ("the story of two women
seeking the perfect shade"), which ran for a brief, six-night
off-Broadway engagement. Hollywood knocked, but the project faltered
until the women got the rights back in turnaround. Juergensen and
Cooper expanded their material, and with their own and the
Wurmfeld's friends and family investing time and money, a
"three-year rehearsal process," and twenty-two days of production,
an indie classic was born.
lot that shines here. The enlightened story, the tasty performances,
the sweet sentimentality. Tovah Feldshuh's memorable mother, a
forcefully positive figure that could sell Israel Bonds to Arafat.
Kissing Jessica Stein is everything that Edward Burns'
Sidewalks of New York had hoped to be (and which failed at
just about everything). But let's not dwell on last year's Big Apple
mistake. Rather rejoice that something as nuanced and deliciously
simple as Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather
Juergensen's film (yeah, it was directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld,
but the women are the creative force behind this gem as writers,
co-producers, and stars) can be such a poignant and passionate
statement on unexpected friendships.
Click here to read the
Kissing Jessica Stein interview.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.