Kissing Jessica Stein
directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
(20th Century Fox, 2001)

Imagine Annie Hall had been written from the woman's perspective. And that Woody Allen was a woman. OK, it's a stretch, but it gives you an idea of what to expect should you watch Kissing Jessica Stein: New York locales, upbeat jazz classics and every neurotic situation you've ever seen a New Yorker pitched into.

And one other thing: a heck of a good movie.

Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) is a journalist who has a problem with men. The quick-cut collage of her meeting guys for coffee leaves no doubt about that. Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen) is a New York artist whose luck with men is rather different, but no better.

They probably never would have met if it hadn't been for the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who of course died years before Stein ever went into production. Cooper includes a quote by Rilke in an ad she places in the personals' "women seeking women" section, and Stein, though she's not looking for a lesbian relationship, is quite taken by it.

The joke is that Cooper has no idea who Rilke is. She got the quote from a friend who helped her write the ad: a gay male friend. If that kind of irony appeals to you, so will Stein. But what follows is not just a comedy of errors -- though there are plenty of screw-ups to go around.

Stein is a very personal dialogue on the nature of relationships, good and bad, straight and otherwise; on the risks of undertaking a relationship; and on the challenges of explaining to family, friends and co-workers that you've decided to follow a somewhat different course in life. And it manages all this and cracks you up at the same time. Witness Stein to Cooper while perusing an S&M catalogue: "I never realized lesbians accessorized."

To complicate matters, Cooper, who's been known to drop trou at the drop of a hat, is in a hurry to consummate the relationship, while Stein estimates it will take several weeks just to reach the kissing point.

To further complicate matters, the very neurotic Stein works as a reporter for a newspaper edited by her old college boyfriend (Scott Cohen), who's best friends with Stein's brother (David Aaron Baker), who's about to get married. This forces Stein to come out to numerous overlapping groups, and her mother (Tovah Feldshuh), all at once.

And ultimately, that's what makes Stein work: it's much ado about something.

Kissing Jessica Stein, for which Wesfeldt shares writing honors, is less about lesbianism than it is about coming out. Anyone's who ever had to admit to their peers that they feel a little -- or a lot -- differently about things will feel a pang of empathy while chortling at her miscues.

Also captured exquisitely are the reactions of those around Stein, especially her co-worker Joan (Jackie Hoffman), whose detailed questions suggest someone who's desperately trying to experience vicariously what she won't let herself experience firsthand, and her mother, who starts out as the stereotypical Jewish mother and blossoms into a wonderful, sympathetic character in her own right.

Made on a scant budget of $1 million, Kissing Jessica Stein has gone on to win awards in Miami, Los Angeles and Deauville, France -- and bring in at least seven times what it cost to make. Woody Allen should be so fortunate.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 26 July 2003

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