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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Kissing Jessica Stein
reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, Kissing Jessica Stein is the latest gay indie to get Hollywood polish and distribution. The interesting thing about this film is that the two lead actors, Jennifer Westfeldt (Jessica) and Heather Juergensen (Helen) wrote the script, originally a two-woman comedy they performed in New York after meeting at a theater lab in the Catskills in 1997. First-time director, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, had also worked in theater, and here he manages successfully to preserve the stage origins of the film.

Kissing Jessica Stein is a romantic comedy about New York, about being Jewish, and not really about being gay. In real life it's pretty unlikely that a questioning girl as plugged in to the downtown art scene as Helen is would first go looking for a date by placing a personal ad, and it's equally unlikely that a straight girl frustrated by a stream of decidedly ineligible bachelors would answer a women-seeking-women ad, even if it did quote her favorite poet. That said, I found Jessica reasonably plausible as a homophobic straight woman drawn, in spite of herself, to another woman-well, except for the research on sex toys she brings to her second date. But she's such a convincingly neurotic intellectual (she works as a writer and copyeditor for a newspaper) that you can almost believe she would do just that.

The dialogue in Kissing Jessica Stein is fast-paced and smart, beautifully handled by the two leads and the other minor characters in the plot, which include Jessica's best friend at the paper, who is pregnant and very unsentimental about it (Jackie Hoffman), her boss and ex-boyfriend Josh (Scott Cohen), her Mom, Judy, who's always bugging her to get married and stop being so fussy (beautifully acted by Tovah Feldshuh) and, finally, Helen's gay male buddies, who alternately provide critical commentary about her romantic walk on the wild side from "the gay point of view," and egg her on.

In some ways, it's a relief to see a so-called gay movie that's not tragic and not so unrealistically utopian that you know it's over-compensating for the aforementioned tragic plot. On the other hand, this movie marks itself as straight by focalizing almost exclusively through Jessica-the "really" straight one. We meet her family and her friends, we share her thoughts, feelings and anxieties, and we learn all about her motives (she's also, of course, the "blond" or light one). Helen, on the other hand, remains a mystery. Does she have a family? What does she think of all this? And what about her ex-boyfriend, a black delivery man (why?) whom she sees just to have sex? In fact, when the relationship finally flounders (though part of the humor is that it's always already floundering), the movie suggests that "not being gay enough" means not being obsessed with sex. This is a conservative, if not downright reactionary conclusion to draw in that it reaffirms stereotypes both about women and about homosexuality: one, to be truly feminine and heterosexual means cherishing companionship rather than sex; and two, being gay means being too focused on sex.

You could look at it differently, first as an indictment of heterosexuality (i.e. that heterosexual women aren't that wild about sex), second as a way to teach the straight world that being gay, if you're a woman, is not just about being best friends, which is the mistake Jessica ultimately makes. Those messages would have come through loud and clear if Helen had been the main character.  But she's not.

All in all, Kissing Jessica Stein is an enjoyable movie, especially on a verbal level; you have to pay attention to follow all the repartee. And it provides some food for thought, stuff to argue about with your friends. It's almost less predictable than many other gay Hollywood romantic comedies, and it's definitely funny.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002