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'Kissing Jessica Stein'

'Kissing Jessica Stein' flirts with women's attractions

Friday, April 05, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

"Kissing Jessica Stein" is easier than outing her -- or handling her once she's been kissed and outed.

'Kissing Jessica Stein'

RATING: R for adult sexual themes

STARRING: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Scott Cohen, Jackie Hoffman

DIRECTOR: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld

WEB SITE: www.KissingJessica



That's because Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) has more issues than the Smithfield Street News. Chief among them is sexual ambivalence. Manhattan is hetero heaven but dating hell: There are no men in her life, or vice versa. Enter Helen (Heather Juergensen), a Chelsea gallery owner who cuts straight to the gay chase.

The result is a smart romantic comedy whose narrative kisses pay more than lip service to the relative values of sex, love and friendship. It was written and produced by co-stars Westfeldt and Juergensen themselves from a play idea in which two "girly-girls" meet to haggle about becoming lesbians -- on the thesis that American women can and do explore their bisexual attractions more easily and successfully than men.

Jessica's and Helen's explorations hit paydirt instantly in some heavy-duty girl talk over drinks. Jess' stalled-artist career and hatred of computers ("obscuring and argumentative") are plumbed. Yoga and philosophy are also on her agenda. Helen challenges her self-certainty by the sudden planting of a kiss.

"Let it marinate," she advises -- then abruptly leaves.

Jessica does so with a studious approach, nervously sharing her discoveries as they materialize, e.g.: "I was surprised to learn that lesbians accessorize." Helen is patient but gradually aware she has fallen in love with a Jewish Sandra Dee.

It's a love which, among other problematic things, dares not speak its name in front of Tovah Feldshuh, who plays Jessica's quintessential Jewish mother and keeps that character from being a total cliche during the obligatory Guess Who's Coming to Shabbat Dinner scene (and its serious emotional aftermath). Thespian as opposed to lesbian support comes from Scott Cohen as Jess' old flame and current boss, while over-the-top comedy is provided by Jackie Hoffman as the world's nerdiest and most pregnant "best friend."

Juergensen's and Westfeldt's credits are nearly all in the theatrical and video realms (the latter has a recurring role on CBS's "Judging Amy"), but director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld helps them mold their acting style into a happy cinematic medium between stage and TV. Westfeldt's neurotic stammer is as annoying as Sandy Dennis' at times but has the vitality reminiscent of early Streisand ("The Owl and the Pussycat") at others. Juergensen is solid throughout (but what is it about her strange nose?).

The story flirts with soap opera in the idealized mother-daughter relationship and with incredulity in the family's blithe acceptance of Jessica's shifting sex preferences. Yet its alternately snappy and gentle dialogue makes for an intelligent indie offering by two committed young writer-performers, a rather fresh phenomenon -- like last year's "Anniversary Party" -- we should like to see more of.

Judeo-Christian Coalitionists needn't worry about lesbian recruitment. Jessica's "Kissing," in the end, takes no political position -- correct or incorrect --on the gay-straight subject, just a firm one on the special intimacy of female friendship.

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