Good romantic comedies are hard to come by. But from time to time a film will come along that makes you forget the typically clichd story line by throwing a new twist onto an old recipe. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s film “Kissing Jessica Stein” does just that.
Jennifer Westfeldt stars as Jessica Stein, an urbane, mid-twenties New Yorker who works for a newspaper. After a few bad encounters with men and with her younger brother’s marriage forthcoming, Stein decides to answer a classified ad for “Woman seeking Woman” for no other reason than the fact that the ad quotes Rilke. The advertisement was placed by Helen (Heather Juergensen), who is an even more urbane gallery manager in lower Manhattan.
From their first encounter, when the extremely straight Jessica uncomfortably has a drink with the sexually curious Helen, the pair interacts with a strange chemistry. As Helen gets more excited about the relationship, Jessica becomes more hesitant — not only because she comes from a Jewish family from whom she hides her relationship, but also because she is not that sure about the partnership herself.
As the movie progresses, Helen’s eagerness and Jessica’s reluctance clash and serve as the main plot conflict for the film. Complicating the matter even further is the fact that Helen is still involved in relationships with multiple men. At the same time, Jessica’s college boyfriend Josh (Scott Cohen) never stopped loving her, while violently denying it himself.
The best parts of this movie are those between plot developments, places where the acting can shine. In fact, the script (co-written by Westfeldt and Juergensen) is the strongest point of the movie, keeping things moving without sacrificing character development. At the same time, the movie is funny and honest.
The cinematography shares the strengths of the script. Herman-Wurmfeld’s direction leaves the film with a very organic feeling. By using long takes without changing cameras, often panning back and forth from person to person during conversations, the camera work leaves the viewer feeling like more than just a removed observer.
The acting too, is good. Westfeldt, Juergensen and Cohen all do brilliant jobs of relaying more than just emotion. Juergensen especially delivers a masterful performance. Westfeldt, though, is the weakest link in the movie, not for her acting itself, but because her character (and her facial expressions) can get downright annoying after too long. At times, it seems as if she can’t decide if she’s embarrassed or sad and ends up looking like a depressed chipmunk.
The movie is centered on a controversial topic: not that of homosexuality itself, but rather the fact that both main characters in the movie seem to be dabbling in it, or making choices — an idea that is not politically correct in gay and lesbian circles. At one point in the film, one of Helen’s gay friends berates her as demeaning all homosexuals by dating a girl who is so obviously straight. But the movie never really addresses the issue. It never examines the implications of the problem which it has brought up, but instead skirts the issue and drops everyone back into labeled bins by the end of the movie, denying the obvious chemistry with which it had earlier been so transfixed.
In spite of this, the film is good. And the ideological confusions are mostly smoothed over by the fullness of the plot. The movie transcends traditional romantic comedies. It is not a film about sex but rather one about deciding what you want from life. “Kissing Jessica Stein” works not because it is controversial or because it is funny. It succeeds because it has real characters and addresses, albeit fleetingly, dilemmas which we face every day.