The Austin Chronicle

Kissing Jessica Stein

Rated R, 96 min. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Scott Cohen, Esther Wurmfeld, Jackie Hoffman.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 29, 2002

Warm, friendly, a little bit sloppy, but nothing to get the blood pressure up -- that's what it's like, Kissing Jessica Stein, an indie romantic comedy that never makes it past first base. Frustrated with all the lame-duck blind dates with men she's been having, flibberty-gibbet Manhattan copywriter Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) wonders if maybe she's got her fishing rod dipping in the wrong pond. She answers a “Women Seeking Women” ad and stumbles across gallery owner Helen Cooper (Juergensen), who likewise is just “trying out” this whole lesbian thing. Their courtship is cute, in all its trepidation and nervous fumbling. (Jessica approaches the sexual stage of their relationship with a “How to” manual on lesbian coupling.) But underneath that cuteness, Kissing Jessica Stein reveals … infinite more layers of cuteness, each one more cloying than the previous. The two women are so busy squealing over everything -- lipstick, shoes, their relationship -- that their courtship plays more like a monthlong slumber party than the first inchings toward a sexual and emotional connection. Granted, there's humor to be found in the relationship and in Jessica's Annie Hall-knockoff nervousness. (Y'know, cute humor, cute like puppy dogs and primary-colory nail polish.) But there's little dramatic weight, which is why the film flattens like a sheet when it approaches issues thornier than Jessica icking out over her first girl-on-girl deep-tonguing. Kissing Jessica Stein is a punchline in search of a joke, perhaps a product of its inception: It began as a comic skit by co-stars Westfeldt and Juergensen, who turned that idea into an off-off-Broadway show (Lipschtick), which served as the basis of their screenplay. Kudos go to the two struggling actresses for taking a proactive approach, but Westfeldt and Juergensen's script never makes it past the pitching phase, as if they tossed out an idea (“Wouldn't it be funny if there were these two straight girls who tried out being gay?”) and figured that'd be enough to coast on for 90 minutes. It's not. Aside from the lack of a sustainable story, the film also suffers from some first-time screenwriter missteps in pacing and characterization, but the cast of mostly unknowns turn out mostly appealing performances. Scott Cohen in particular rises above his vanilla-pudding part as Jessica's ex-boyfriend, even if you can almost see Cohen scratching his head when his character is forced to make an incomprehensible, 180-degree turn from the semi-villain of the piece to the deus ex machina Savior of Jessica's Heterosexuality. That last bit might be revealing too much, but it's worth nothing: Kissing Jessica Stein starts out as a lark, but veers into grittier, more emotionally complex territory -- just like a real relationship -- that the film doesn't have the chops to sustain. It's simply bitten off more than it can chew, the premise reading (pardon me) like a Manwich, meaty and layered, the delivery more akin to little finger sandwiches. Correction: cute little finger sandwiches.

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