Kissing Jessica Stein
Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Cast: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Scott Cohen, Jackie Hoffman, David Aaron Baker, Michael Ealy, Eden Wurmfeld. Screenplay: Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen.

One would imagine from the title of Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's arthouse hit that its central character is someone who, at some point or other, kisses Jessica Stein. In fact, Jessica Stein herself is the movie's main character, and it is the movie that can't stop bussing her. Despite all this untoward fascination, I personally found the character almost completely unsympathetic and unappealing. This response was not at all the fault of Jennifer Westfeldt, the rather charming actress playing her, except that she and co-star Heather Juergensen were also the screenwriters. As a result, what seems like a movie inordinately in love with its main character turns out to be a case of astonishing self-idolatry, a valentine written by two performers to an allegedly sweet and raffish alter ego.

The first sign of the movie's crude narcissism is the punchline montage in which we discover, yet again, that all the single men in New York City are lame ducks: nebbishes, leches, penny-pinchers, closet cases, and arrested adolescents. A better romantic comedy would be able to celebrate its Affair To Remember without cutting off every other singleton in sight at the knees, and so the reprisal of this shopworn device offers early proof that you've seen this movie a million times before, even if some of the anatomical details have been changed. After Jessica finishes grimacing at all the grotesque men in the Big Apple, she answers an ad placed by a trendy, dissatisfied straight woman named Helen who decides to raise her chances of romantic fulfillment by, shall we say, expanding the parameters of her search.

Which brings us to some of the trickier aspects of my displeasure with Kissing Jessica Stein, because the fluidity of the main characters' sexual desires is both the film's most refreshing gesture and its biggest liability as a piece of storytelling. Do not mistake me for someone who believes any portrayal of homosexuality-by-choice to be intrinsically false and degrading. While sexual orientation does not feel elective or volitional to most of us, I'm not sure that what Jessica or Helen exhibit in trying out new kinds of partners represents something as monolithic or identitarian as a "sexual orientation." Furthermore, I see no reason to believe that when one person (or, as the case may be, one fictional character) selects a same-sex partner as a conscious choice, the implication is that all same-sex partnerships are automatically derogated as whimsical choices. In simpler terms, just because there are Anne Heches doesn't mean there aren't Ellen DeGenereses, and neither sexuality seems more or less valid than the other, unless it starts naming itself as something other than it is. Pardon the hortatory claims—I realize they do not qualify as film criticism, but it seems necessary to register them so that the actual business of film criticism may proceed.

And this is precisely to the point because Kissing Jessica Stein, though amenable to me politically, seems paltry to me as artistry, and seems precisely to mistake its political gestures for artistic ones. Jessica is a catastrophe: she is as neurotic, egotistical, ungracious, and cruelly effacing toward her new female partner as she was to all the men previously entertained as possible beaux. Rattled when Helen tries to touch her, hyperventilating at the barest mention of sexual contact, denying Helen's existence when friends and family develop enquiring minds, Jessica Stein is an interpersonal nightmare whose continuing fascination for Helen finds no conceivable support except that Jennifer Westfeldt—an apple-cheeked ditzy ironist of the Lisa Kudrow school—so nimbly sells the comedic lines she wrote for herself. These, no doubt, are more amusing to the audience than they possibly could be to her kind, sincere, and horny new girlfriend. Accordingly, Kissing Jessica Stein swiftly abandons all sense as a romantic comedy, while the perceived envelope-pushing of even imagining a sitcommy lesbian hook-up bears the full burden of answering why this film deserved to be made. The movie might feel like liberal progressivism, but it's actually the same old sensationalism. "What if two women ever went on a date??" the movie seems to ask, "and if they did, who would care about consistent characterization, judicious authorial attitudes, or plausible plot structure?"

From these beginning chords, a whole film unfolds that will please or perplex the audience in exact proportion to how much they expect romantic comedy characters to at least act like humans, and to what extent they view lesbians, or sometime lesbians, to be inherently revolutionary characters (or, for that matter, revolutionary humans). Westfeldt and Juergensen remain appealing presences whose script is insanely adoring of the former and remarkably willing to short-change the latter. Somewhere between these extremes, that vaudevillean warhorse Tovah Feldshuh shows up to gnosh the scenery as Mrs. Stein, throwing holiday dinners and scheduling dress-tailoring appointments at the most meshuggeneh possible moments. Feldshuh at least is movingly restrained in a key scene where she and her daughter truly connect, but it's symptomatic of Kissing Jessica Stein that dispersed moments of recognizable humanity are expected to validate entire half-hours of hysteria, diluted slapstick, and a screenplay that keeps spinning its own wheels to the rhythm of "Will they or won't they?". An unexpected coda of Albee-ish romantic spite is, similarly, a smart and jolting impulse but too severe a disjuncture from where we've been—as though Nora Ephron suddenly passed script-writing duties to Harold Pinter. I'd be interested to see these women star in another movie, but I'm not crossing my fingers that they write another one. Twentysomething imps who dodge their friends, tyrannize their lovers, and pour out their resulting angst in cute New York lofts entirely decorated with their own larkish paintings—I might betray any number of impulses toward these people, but neither kissing them nor watching them ranks high on that list. C–


Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Actress, Musical/Comedy (Westfeldt); Best Supporting Actress, Musical/Comedy (Feldshuh)

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