Kissing Jessica Stein (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The smart romantic comedy occurs so infrequently that it has obtained an almost mythical status, sort of like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. In the subgenre of gay and lesbian romantic comedies, intelligence is even rarer. Since the ratio of good to bad movies is about the same in the gay/lesbian niche as it is for mainstream films, and there are far fewer pictures made to accommodate the homosexual audience, it stands to reason that it can be difficult to find a gay and/or lesbian romantic comedy with a strong enough script to appeal not only to its core viewers, but to a wider audience. Kissing Jessica Stein is one of those uncommon movies.

Without resorting to hyperbole, I can state that Kissing Jessica Stein may be the best same-sex romance I have seen (the other candidate, Show Me Love, is as much a coming-of-age story as anything else). The screenplay is written with a thinking audience in mind, the dialogue sparkles, the characters leap off the screen in full three-dimensionality, and the cliches are kept to a bare minimum. Plus, unlike the average romantic comedy (of either the homo- or heterosexual variety), this one deals with thought provoking issues. To wit: if a person is not gay, but is in love with someone of the same sex, how do they display that emotion? Is it possible to have romantic love without a physical expression of it?

Neither of the two principles in this movie is a lesbian. Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) is straight. Her entire sexual history has been one of pairing with men, and the very thought of having a sexual relationship with another woman is... well... a little weird. Helen (Heather Juergensen), on the other hand, is bisexual. Her primary partners are men, but there are times when she feels in the mood for female companionship, and usually has no difficulty procuring it. When Jessica and Helen meet, Helen is on the prowl. The two do not immediately connect romantically, but there is a spark, and it doesn't take long for their new friendship to begin straying into the sexual realm. Jessica is nervous about sleeping with Helen, but Helen is patient. She knows that Jessica loves her, but that crossing the line is difficult. Meanwhile, at her office, where Jessica works as a proofreader, she has to deal with her ex-lover (Scott Cohen), whose frequent put-downs and pugnacious nature may hide feelings that he is unwilling to admit.

Kissing Jessica Stein has been called a "lesbian Annie Hall", and, while such a description is too facile, it's easy to understand its origins. Like Woody Allen's classic romantic comedy, this movie chronicles the entire arc of a relationship, not just the beginning. Both films effectively wed comedy and drama, never veering too much in one direction or another. Each is set in the shadow of the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan. Finally, Annie Hall and Kissing Jessica Stein display an understanding of human nature that far, far too many motion pictures ignore. The average romantic comedy relies almost exclusively on the chemistry between the leads; the plot is usually a throw-away. In this case, we are fortunate to have both an interesting storyline and actresses who interact with each other in a pleasant, unforced manner.

Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen give solid, unaffected performances as Jessica and Helen, respectively. They experience no difficulty with the range required by their roles - each seems perfectly at home with the comedic and dramatic aspects of the parts, and there's a tangible connection between them. The romantic scenes vary from being sweet, but not saccharine, to sexy (although, unlike in most lesbian romances, there is no nudity). One of the reasons the two leads inhabit their characters so fully is that this isn't the first time Westfeldt and Juergensen have played Jessica and Helen. The two created their characters for the stage play "Lipschtick" and are simply resuming them on film. We buy into the couple so easily that, on the two occasions when the screen caption "Three months later" appears, we almost feel cheated. Yes, we we're interested in seeing what happens later in the relationship, but we also want to observe what occurs during the three month spans. Kissing Jessica Stein is a little over one and one-half hours long, but I wouldn't have minded a little longer running length.

With the exception of Helen's gay buddies, all of the supporting characters are well developed. Leading the pack are Jessica's pushy-but-caring mother, played by Tovah Feldshuh. This could easily have been a caricature ("the Jewish mother"), but the pitch of the performance, as well as an attention to detail in the screenplay, avoids this. Scott Cohen's Josh plays an important part, although not in the way that viewers initially anticipate. And Jackie Hoffman provides some added comedy as Joan, Jessica's pregnant friend and co-worker.

With Kissing Jessica Stein, director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld easily avoids the sophomore jinx (his feature debut was 1995's obscure Fanci's Persuasion). With its frank exploration of the boundaries between love and friendship, the film does a lot more than the traditional lesbian romantic comedy. And, while the Kissing Jessica Stein's ending can be described as bittersweet, the movie as a whole is a joy to experience.

Kissing Jessica Stein (United States, 2001)

Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2002-02-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1