Kissing Jessica Stein



USA 2001 : Charles Herman-Wurmfeld : 96 mins

The shadow of Woody Allen hangs very heavy over Kissing Jessica Stein, an intermittently amusing but very innocuous and forgettable comedy about Manhattan relationships. Like Annie Hall, this is the story of a short-lived romantic liaison which ultimately proves beneficial to both parties – except this time the relationship is one between two women: publishing executive Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) responds to a lonely-hearts ad placed art-gallery manager Helen (Heather Juergensen), presuming the author to be a man. All of Jessica’s previous relationships have been heterosexual, but she’s at the point where she might be persuaded to try something very different. Her initial reluctance is gradually broken down by the more confident Helen, who herself has a track record of both gay and straight affairs. Jessica’s dabblings come as a surprise to her best pal Joan (Jackie Hoffman), her ex Josh (Scott Cohen) and her very ‘Jewish Mother’ mother Judy (Tovah Feldshuh).

Kissing Jessica Stein is a very personal project for stars Westfeldt and Juergensen, who adapted their stage-play ‘Lipschtick’ in a Good Will Hunting scenario of aspiring actors setting out to create their own opportunities. And there are some very decent lines here and there, though this Manhattan-Jewish-dating-insecurities material is by now very familiar stuff on both big and small screens. The lesbianism angle does come over as more of a gimmick than anything else, with the is-she-or-isn’t-she question no more interestingly handled than in, say, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy.

Unsurprisingly, given the number of times both have played these roles, Westfeldt and Juergensen are fine as the contrasting Jessica and Helen, though the appealing Westfeldt does veer into Diane Keaton-impersonation territory on several occasions. But it’s Feldshuh who makes the biggest impact in her limited screen time as the mother – there’s a long two-hander between the pair in which Jessica reveals the truth about her new ‘friend’ is revealed, and Feldshuh’s reactions momentarily lift the film to a whole new level. After this, however, it’s very much all downhill – though Kissing Jessica Stein has never been exactly a torrent of emotion or activity, the film disappointingly peters out into a very dribbly, episodic and inert finale.

Director Herman-Wurmfeld doesn’t bring much to the party – he pads out the running-time with some grindingly gratuitous cutaways to exceedingly familiar Manhattan street-scenes, accompanied by a similarly standard-issue jazzy score from Marcelo Zarvos. It all adds up to a reasonably competent, but depressingly by-the-numbers kind of modern comedy. “Amazing, she takes such risks in her work,” someone remarks of Jessica when she fulfils her long-dormant artistic ambitions – there’s sadly no danger of anybody saying the same of the movie.

28th September, 2002
(seen 15th June, UCI Silverlink, North Shields)

For a second opinion of Kissing Jessica Stein click here.

by Neil Young