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"KISSING JESSICA STEIN"
(2002) (Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Romantic Comedy: A formerly straight woman finds herself dealing with the effects of entering into a lesbian relationship with a bisexual woman.
PLOT:
Jessica Stein (JENNIFER WESTFELDT) is a 28-year-old copy editor who lives in New York. Rather picky about men, she hasn't dated in a year -- much to the chagrin of her matchmaker mother, Judy (TOVAH FELDSHUH) - although she was once in a long-term relationship with Josh Meyers (SCOTT COHEN) who now happens to be her boss.

When Jessica's pregnant coworker, Joan (JACKIE HOFFMAN), reads her one of the personals from the paper, Jessica thinks the person sounds perfect for her. Since a woman seeking a woman wrote it, however, Jessica initially dismisses it. Yet, throwing all caution to the wind, she then decides to meet Helen Cooper (HEATHER JUERGENSEN), an assistant director at an art gallery.

Having the same problem finding the right person, Helen had her gay friends Martin (MICHAEL MASTRO) and Sebastian (CARSON ELROD) help write the personal ad for her, and she's instantly attracted to Jessica upon meeting her.

While Helen is a practicing bisexual, any sort of same sex behavior is foreign to Jessica, and she's embarrassed, awkward and unsure of how and whether to proceed. The two eventually become lovers, however, and must then deal with the happiness of finding love contrasting the pitfalls of such a relationship, including Jessica's reluctance to let anyone know of it.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In a former episode of TV's "Seinfeld," Jerry is commenting to Elaine that, in general and beyond a few exceptions, most people of the world are not terribly attractive. When Elaine asks how people get together then, Jerry provides the punch line of "alcohol." Since the show involved the major characters never finding lasting love due to their pickiness and self-absorbed, high standards toward others despite their own shortcomings, such observations were not only true in their world, but also were rather funny.

Of course, there's more to finding Mr. or Mrs. Right than just good looks and/or "beer goggles," and most romantic comedies deal with such issues in their stories of men and women trying to find and be happy with each other. Most of that certainly holds true for the latest entry in that genre, "Kissing Jessica Stein," although it's interested in telling the tale of two women in such a relationship.

As written by the film's two stars -- Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen (making their collaborative feature writing debut) - who've adapted their own stage play, "Lipschtick," the picture is a fairly entertaining look at two women - one straight, the other bisexual - who've had no luck finding fulfilling relationships, be it with men or women, and then find each other.

Notwithstanding the same sex angle and all of the accompanying material, the film pretty much follows the rules and practices of the standard romantic comedy genre with all of the requisite relational ups and downs, and musical montages. Despite the familiarity and a few scattered storytelling problems, what makes the film work rather well and stand out from many previous entries are the good performances, nicely developed characters and smart writing and dialogue.

Since most everyone - straight or gay - has been in one or more relationships where they tried to find the right person for them - most viewers will be able to relate to and empathize with the romantic trials, tribulations and joys the characters experience. The writers, along with director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (making his feature film debut), have made sure to add enough amusing and occasionally rather funny moments to such material to make it seem fresh and avoid feelings of familiarity and/or redundancy.

Some of that obviously stems from and involves the lesbian angle. After the seemingly obligatory but still fun montage of bad dates both women are subjected to, the film settles in on exploring the relationship at hand. Since one of the participants is playing on the same team for the first time, her awkward and unsure moments are what provide much of the story's more entertaining moments.

As the film never really takes a concrete stand on its views of lesbianism, none of the material feels overly preachy or manipulative. Instead, such awkward and joyous moments feel refreshingly fresh and full of life, and since most everyone has also experienced them, that makes the film that much easier to relate to.

What works best in doing that, however, are the characters, the intelligent dialogue that flows from their mouths and the performances by those who create both. Jennifer Westfeldt ("See Jane Run," TV's "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place") and Heather Juergensen ("The Afterlife of Grandpa") create characters that come off like real people with real feeling and problems that immediately engage the viewer (and that's especially true for Westfeldt as the title character).

Supporting performances are also good and enjoyable, with Tovah Feldshuh ("A Walk on the Moon," "Happy Accidents") playing Jessica's over-involved, matchmaker mother (who shares the film's best, understated scene with Westfeldt), Jackie Hoffman ("Mo Money," "Freaky Friday") as her inquisitive and supportive coworker, and Scott Cohen ("Jacob's Ladder," "Private Parts") playing her former boyfriend and current boss.

Where the film falters is in not knowing when to lower the curtain and be done. By trying to bring some unneeded closure to the proceedings, the filmmakers miss the perfect stopping point - at the end of a joyous and upbeat montage - and drag things on for too long and thus somewhat ruin the mood. While it's not a debilitating flaw, it does let some air out of this otherwise lofty and high-flying balloon of a film.

Although the picture might be uneven at times - particularly as the momentum ebbs and flows a bit too often - and doesn't sport a polished, Hollywood veneer, it makes up for that in some fun scenes, smart writing, terrific characters and a mostly exuberant approach at putting a spin on the old romantic comedy formula. Nothing earth-shattering but certainly entertaining to watch for the most part, "Kissing Jessica Stein" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed February 25, 2002 / Posted March 20, 2002


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