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Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld) 2002

    Although I knew its female stars wrote it, I was still surprised to find out that a man directed Kissing Jessica Stein (something that somehow escaped my attention during the credits), since it seems to be absolutely drenched in estrogen. It plays roughly like an extended episode of TV’s “Sex and the City” that follows Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) a perky, pseudo-sophisticated copy editor with an impossibly big Manhattan apartment as she dabbles in lesbianism. That in the first three minutes of the film we see her eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs, sipping some wine, then moving onto coffee, made me worry that it was going to feature a character that was more a demographic amalgamation than a believable individual. I must admit that Westfeldt, who looks like she’s equal parts Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow, overcomes a lot of the script’s character developing shorthand and does manage to make her neuroses charmingly cute. She’s got the Woody Allen persona crossed with the good looks of the younger women that he dates in his films. The problems that swirl around in the movie have little to do with her performance, however.


    The novelty of the premise wears off fairly quickly, and the skittish trepidation that Jessica feels sometimes grows a bit tiresome. The other characters often note how conservative Jessica is, but it seemed to me that her anxiety came mostly out of a need to lengthen the film’s running time. When things finally move along in the central relationship, it only results in a tired series of predicaments, every one heightened by the camera’s unremitting whip pans. The incessant name-dropping also struck me as distracting. The movie wants to convince us that its characters are in the fast-paced publishing world, so it has them use the occasional big word (only when it’s played for laughs, naturally) but its perception of the newsroom seems way off.  Somehow though, the charms of the lead performances allow us to forget much of this from moment to moment. The dialogue is occasionally quite clever, and the film’s chastity is kind of refreshing. Even as it trots out clichéd characters such as the foul mouthed little old lady with the unchecked id and the overbearing Jewish mother, it finds a little bit of truth, if not in them, in the other characters’ reactions to their exaggeratedness. The phony third act crises are redeemed by a relatively sensible epilogue that seems to understand what the rest of Kissing Jessica Stein only occasionally does: the more lightweight and the less at stake in this sort of movie, the more likely the audience is going to be able to laugh at it.



Jeremy Heilman