Fox // 2001 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // September 17th, 2002
When it comes to love, sometimes she just can't think straight.
Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt, TV's Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) is a 28-year-old bundle of nervous electricity manning a copyeditor's desk at a New York daily newspaper. Mousy, conservative Jessica wants the romantic dream of happily-ever-after, but Mr. Right hasn't sailed into her life. She's reminded of this each time she looks at her boss, Josh Meyers (Scott Cohen, The 10th Kingdom), her former college boyfriend who gruffly calls Jessica by her last name and ridicules her at every turn.
Determined to find her soulmate, Jessica dates actively. But, as we see in a priceless montage, she has a knack for hooking up with hopeless losers. These include: a self-professed writer (Christopher Berger) who mangles the Queen's English babbling about the "endorphmans" he gets pumping during his gym workouts, and telling Jessica he's "usually a pretty self-defecating guy"; a disco-era macho anachronism in a polyester zebra-print shirt (Hayden Adams) who comes on like Leon Phelps; a dweeby accountant (pardon the redundancy; he's played by Kevin Sussman) who divides the dinner check down to the last leaf of arugula; and a flamboyant character (Jim J. Bullock from Too Close for Comfort) with one foot in the closet and the other in denial.
One day a co-worker reads a personal ad in the Village Voice classifieds that resonates with Jessica: the writer begins the ad with a quote from the poet Rilke, a favorite of Jessica's. Just one problem: the advertiser is a woman, seeking a lesbian relationship. On impulse, Jessica arranges a meeting with the woman, who turns out to be a gamine art gallery director named Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen). At first, Jessica gets cold feet. But Helen is friendly and engaging in a non-aggressive way, and like Jessica she is intellectual and curious. Helen persuades Jessica to have "just one drink" with her. Which leads to dinner at an Indian restaurant where sitars jangle in the background. Which turns into a philosophical debate about happiness on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk. Which leads to an impulsive kiss, and a confused -- but oddly elated -- Jessica.
The two women fumble their apprehensive way into a romance. Jessica approaches her newfound fascination with a journalist's determination, reading every book and pamphlet she can find on the subject of Sapphic love. Helen, whom we first met sneaking out of an argument with her married lover at an art exhibition to enjoy a quickie in the back office with the delivery guy, is frustrated by their slow progress toward "going all the way." ("I took out an ad," she whines to a gay friend, "and I ended up with the Jewish Sandra Dee.") Meanwhile, Jessica juggles her feelings for Helen with her reluctance to expose them publicly, especially in front of her domineering mother (nicely played by familiar character actress Tovah Feldshuh, The Corruptor).
How -- or perhaps whether -- these two women make sense of their dramatic lifestyle change forms the tentpole for the rest of the plot, which also involves preparations for the wedding of Jessica's brother and her emerging (with Helen's encouragement) sideline career as an artist.
I approached this review assignment with intense trepidation. Romantic comedies rank near the bottom of my list of entertainment preferences, just above professional wrestling and rodeo. And a romantic comedy about two women? Break out the industrial-strength java and toothpicks for my eyelids. Besides, I'm a 40-year-old heterosexual West Coast male whose last date with a woman other than my now-wife occurred in the early days of the Reagan administration. I am so not the audience for this movie.
And that so didn't matter. I was unexpectedly -- and thoroughly -- charmed by this film, and by its winning pair of co-stars/writers/producers.
Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen were unknown to me (and, I suspect, to most movie buffs) before Kissing Jessica Stein, but they pretty much had me at "Hello." Westfeldt is a less frenetic (and normally proportioned) doppelganger of Callista Flockhart, all seething neurosis beneath her plain-Jane exterior. She has a headlong, breathless way of talking that is absolutely right for the bright but conflicted Jessica. Juergensen possesses a funky, almost androgynous magnetism reminiscent of Carrie-Anne Moss or Jamie Lee Curtis. She's not stereotypically attractive by our culture's norms, but she projects a compelling, electric sensuality. Most significantly, both actresses share a concrete quality -- a wholesome genuineness -- that's refreshing in this age of interchangeable plastic movie stars.
At their movie's deceptively simple heart is the recognition of one factor all humans have in common: the need for intimacy. The script makes it clear to us that Jessica isn't really a lesbian. She may not even be bisexual. She just wants somebody -- anybody -- even if that means trying an approach that has little visceral appeal to her. That someone with Jessica's intelligence and attractiveness -- we like her so well and root so earnestly for her -- can be as desperate as she is reminds us of scary truths about our lives we'd prefer not to acknowledge.
The film milks considerable mileage from its gentle examination of gender/relationship issues. Helen's best friends are a homosexual male couple, one of whom supports her Rainbow Connection, the other of whom resists what he perceives as a pointless, even dishonest, dalliance. Jessica's best friend is a tough-talking, 40ish colleague (a funny turn by Jackie Hoffman) who's pregnant with her first child but still gripes about her husband's lack of adventure in the bedroom ("he won't even use the toys I buy"). Jessica endures an uncomfortable dinner at which her blind date reveals he's recently met the woman of his dreams, and another at her parents home where Mrs. Stein, blissfully unaware of the true nature of her daughter's "friendship," has invited a business associate as Jessica's escort for the evening, and Jessica's ex Josh Meyers as a date for Helen.
First-time feature director (unless you count an indie flick only family members saw, and a Facts of Life reunion telefilm) Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (memo to Charlie: it's better not to hyphenate if doing so increases the perception that you may be the love child of Paul Reubens and Earthworm Jim) does a creditable job translating to the screen a script that began life as a stage play. Herman-Wurmfeld is constricted by the Bill-Gates-pocket-change budget to limited camera movement and shot set-up, but he and his crew make do with a good deal of guerrilla filmmaking -- many of the exteriors and scenes in public buildings had to be captured in one or two takes, and others were shot in the homes or offices of friends. The cast of mostly un- or barely-knowns are uniformly earnest and competent. The dialogue reads at times with a theatrical stiffness, but the performers breathe sufficient life into their characters that we never feel claustrophobic.
For a low-rent independent feature, Fox (under its Searchlight imprint) dishes up a surprisingly bountiful helping of Kissing Jessica Stein on DVD. Visually, the anamorphic transfer is decent but not great. Print and digital flaws abound, though mostly they're inconspicuous enough not to be deal-breakers. There's a soft, mushy look to the picture from beginning to end. The color balance at times veers well to the red end of the palette, like your toddler nephew came over and fiddled with the controls on your TV. But given that the film was made on the cheap, the overall display is acceptable.
Kissing Jessica Stein is not an effects-heavy action film, so don't expect much from the audio track. It's clean, appropriately contrasted, and unremarkable. I loved the music -- a jazzy score by Marcelo Zarvos, supplemented by some clever and bouncy songs -- and it's effectively, if mostly unobtrusively, presented.
The disc comes equipped with a pair of audio commentaries, and they're quite different in tone. Westfeldt and Juergensen's contribution is wonderful: lighthearted and chatty, filled with tidbits about whose house this scene was filmed in, and whose brother or grandmother is an extra or bit player in that scene. The two women enjoy a natural chemistry and clearly are thrilled with the success of their brainchild. The second commentary features director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and cinematographer Lawrence Sher, and sticks more to the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. It's thorough, but not especially entertaining.
There's also a fine documentary featurette that's one of the best I've seen recently. It again focuses on Juergensen and Westfeldt in a series of interview clips intercut both with scenes from the film and with new footage of the co-stars revisiting some of the locations where Kissing Jessica Stein was shot. Running just under nine minutes, this featurette feels more personal and less slick than these things tend to be -- more like a professionally-photographed home movie than like a glossy press kit from the marketing department. Fans of the film will enjoy it.
A collection of deleted scenes and outtakes, viewable with or without audio commentary from Westfeldt and Juergensen, is, as might be expected, a mixed bag. The clips taken from the shooting of the "bad date" montage are hilarious, including footage from two additional "dates" excised from the final cut. It's understandable why these largely improvisational bits were left out -- the montage ran too long and began to drag -- but these outtakes make a delightful extra. Most of the remaining deletions wouldn't have added substance to the film.
A full-frame theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Be sure you don't watch this first. Typical of today's trailers, it reveals too much of a pivotal relationship development that should come as more of a surprise to the viewer.
As humorous as the "bad date" sequence is, it creates a thematic problem that, if you dwell on it, threatens to undermine the integrity of the rest of the story. To wit: why does Jessica consent to dates with any of these guys in the first place? And what does it tell us about her that she does? If these are supposed to be blind dates -- and the encounter with Mr. "Self-Defecating" is not, because it's mentioned that they met at the gym -- what kind of demonic friends would set her up with turkeys like these?
The sequence raises the possibility -- unintended, I'm sure -- that Jessica may be self-destructive (she dates men whom she should know in advance can't be remotely appropriate for her). If Jessica is masochistic, and dates horribly wrong men because of this tendency, it taints our entire perspective of her relationship with Helen. What the film presents as an awkward experiment now becomes an exercise in psychopathology (Jessica dates a woman even though she's not homosexual in order to punish herself). Again, I'm certain this is simply a lapse in logic on the part of the rookie screenwriters, who no doubt looked at the date montage merely as a way of having some fun with Jessica's lack of success in the mating marketplace.
Westfeldt and Juergensen made another faux pas, alluded to in their audio commentary, by not making it clearer that Jessica is also Helen's first female lover. (It's touched on in the dialogue, but so obliquely that it's easy to miss.) If we think Helen is not as inexperienced in this area as Jessica is, we can easily misread her motives and see her as a predator taking advantage of Jessica's naïvete. Just goes to show what a complex task scriptwriting is.
You too will want to kiss Jessica Stein. So will your significant other. Regardless of gender. Or sexual orientation. Or whatever. Its dicey subject matter is handled with grace and wit, and without a whiff of sleazy exploitation. (Wild Wimmin of 'Rasslin' this ain't, even if it is about a lesbian love affair.) It'll make a fun date movie. Even if you and your date are of differing sexes.
Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen are found guilty of making the Judge enjoy a film he was prepared to despise, or maybe sleep through. Jessica, Helen and their neuroses are free to go. Court is in recess.
Review content copyright © 2002 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Documentary Featurette
* Audio Commentary Featuring Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Director of Photography Lawrence Sher
* Audio Commentary Featuring Actors/Writers Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt
* Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with Optional Audio Commentary
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site
* Kissing Jessica Stein Fan Site