Kissing Jessica Stein
review by Elias Savada, 22 March 2002

Smart and sassy, here is one helluva terrific word-of-mouth feature. Watch it, then tell all your friends to see it. This romantic comedy about two women who find love and laughs in New York City, is a charming winner of hearts. And Woody Allen is no longer the only neurotic poster child for the Empire State's biggest city; Heather Juergensen's semi-introverted Jessica Stein is a beautiful, winsome gal. Sometimes she dresses up as Annie Hall. Sensitive, straight, and straightforward, even if she's particularly overwrought in the simpleminded, "self-deprecating" men that she meets. Well-read (the books and magazines cover the floors of her quaint Manhattan apartment) and an aspiring, albeit private, artist, she suffers a dead end job and just a few containers of left-over Chinese in the fridge. Jessica's a hopeless romantic who can't find the right guy in a ninety-six-minute film (life is longer, so who knows…)—or have her overbearing Jewish Mother find him for her. So when Kismet strikes her apparently only emotional chord (through the Village Voice personal ads, of course) in hip, sexy, gregarious, and bored shiksa Helen Cooper (Jennifer Westfeldt), manager of the trendy Schuller Gallery, both women experiment with their first lesbian encounter 

It's an affair of comically confusing proportions. Two steps forward, one step back, and a few cross town—with Helen's gay friends Sebastian (Carson Elrod) and Martin (Michael Mastro) offering some amusing Lesbianism for Dummies wisdom—for good measure as they stumble into their first kiss (with Barry White warbling I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby), their first sex, and what might be love. The how-to books and pamphlets follow later. Then the high-fives. The exceedingly loquacious Jessica is turned on by Helen's marinating personality and her ability not to make linguistic missteps, a pet peeve that has destroyed most of Jessica's previous dates and relationships. And boy can they have fun discussing beauty tips, clothing, and lesbian accessories. It's like guys talking sports, getting all excited. They become lovers and best friends.

Jessica's life, as it is, has been revolving around her job as an assistant copywriter at The Tribune, an alternative news weekly. Josh Meyers (Scott Cohen), her boss and former lover, has his own case of writer/lover's block that figures prominently in the film, and Jessica's early funk turns downright morose when her brother (and Josh's college buddy) announces his marital engagement. Toss in Jessica's friend, co-worker Joan (Jackie Hoffman), a wacky, pregnant, and very entertaining snoop, and you might end up thinking these people's daytime antics are merely soap opera scripts. Not true. The dialogue elevates them above the mundane.

From the opening scene you're won over. Set in a suburban New York synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of forgiveness, Jessica, her mother Judy (a marvelous spin on an old-fashioned stereotype by Tovah Feldshuh) and her grandmother Esther (Esther Wurmfeld, the director's and producer Eden Wurmfeld's grandmother) are deep in thought…about men, while the rest of the congregation is deep in prayer. Judy is kvelling over Ben Feldman, a Vice President with J.P. Morgan, while Jessica is getting upset with the constant pile of men her mother is throwing at her, even if it's only with the best of intentions. The tension, and their voices, escalate above the small din in the sanctuary, until Jessica blurts out "Will you shut up! I'm atoning!" Cue the congregants wide-eyed amazement and the opening credits. The fun is only just beginning.

A few technical notes, because they're interesting. The film's genesis began as a night of New York sketch comedy, of two Laura Ashley-clad "girly-girls" meeting to negotiate how to become lesbians. That evolved into a play Lipschtick ("the story of two women seeking the perfect shade"), which ran for a brief, six-night off-Broadway engagement. Hollywood knocked, but the project faltered until the women got the rights back in turnaround. Juergensen and Cooper expanded their material, and with their own and the Wurmfeld's friends and family investing time and money, a "three-year rehearsal process," and twenty-two days of production, an indie classic was born.

There's a lot that shines here. The enlightened story, the tasty performances, the sweet sentimentality. Tovah Feldshuh's memorable mother, a forcefully positive figure that could sell Israel Bonds to Arafat. Kissing Jessica Stein is everything that Edward Burns' Sidewalks of New York had hoped to be (and which failed at just about everything). But let's not dwell on last year's Big Apple mistake. Rather rejoice that something as nuanced and deliciously simple as Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen's film (yeah, it was directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, but the women are the creative force behind this gem as writers, co-producers, and stars) can be such a poignant and passionate statement on unexpected friendships.

Click here to read the Kissing Jessica Stein interview.

Directed by:
Charles Herman-Wurmfeld

Jennifer Westfeldt
Heather Juergensen
Scott Cohen
Jackie Hoffman
Michael Mastro
Carson Elrod
Tovah Feldshuh

Written by:
Heather Juergensen
Jennifer Westfeldt

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian.





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