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Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)

Kissing Jessica Stein
An early scene loaded with Freudian portent.

Starring:

Jennifer Westfeldt
Heather Juergensen

Released By:

Focus Features

Released In:

2002

Rated:

R

Reviewed By:

The Boneman

Grade:

B+

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Kissing Jessica Stein is one of those rare movies written by the characters that eventually end up playing them on screen and the results here are certainly impressive. Rarely do such big-screen dreams come true, Sylvester Stallone wrote his ticket in Rocky, Nia Vardalos did it With My Big Fat Greek Wedding and for my money Kissing Jessica Stein (while no Rocky) is a much smarter and deeply textured film than the Fat Greek Wedding.

The opening sequences that set up Jessica as a possible candidate for a lesbian relationship are a bit too facile and in the early goings I was worried. Basically we see a montage of about 4 or 5 different nightmare dates that Jessica has recently been on, flashing back and forth so as to let us know that men are nothing but a bunch of crass, ridiculous, unattractive creatures that would drive a staunch Mormon gal into the arms of another woman. However, once we get past this rather predictable and cliched bit, the movie really takes off and in many moments it soars above any romantic comedy that's come down the pike for some time.

In fairness, it must be noted that this film is heavily influenced by Woody Allen, from the dialogue to the locations to the numerous shots of the Manhattan skyline. It was so obvious that I think it was a cinematic wink or tip of the hat to the master of the New York relationship think-piece. The script is extremely literate, in fact, at some points a little bit much so (some scenes feature three characters at once holding forth on lofty and esoteric rants) but I realized that it didn't matter if you heard only snippets of these conversations, because the real joy of this film is this awkward, slow-building relationship between writer/actors Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt), Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen).

Jessica is a straight woman experimenting with lesbianism more-or-less on a whim and Helen is a relative newcomer herself - though she's much more eager to get her feet wet than her new love Jessica who frustratingly insists on wading into these strange new waters by degree. What we soon realize is that what we're watching really has nothing to do with lesbianism and is actually just an exaggerated example of how pretty much all relationships work. Trepidation, fear of commitment and total intimacy - yet the desire to let oneself go completely and jump in with both feet - damn the consequences.

After they've officially consummated the relationship and are girlfriends - issues arise for Jessica that you see coming down Broadway. Coming from a strict Jewish family she is reluctant to introduce the love of her life to her family or even confess her source of happiness to her co-workers - after all she's not so much a lesbian as she is a human being who happens to be in love. Eventually these issues are broached and the film has one guaranteed tear-jerking moment during this part of the film. I saw it coming, but I spilled a few nevertheless. I should also mention as a warning that, although there is no nudity in this film there is a great deal of frank discussion about sexual acts. Let's put it this way - I wouldn't recommend this film for couples on a first date.

A few moments in this film are quite akin to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, particularly when the cat is out of the bag and Helen is confronted by large contingent of Jessica's elderly Jewish aunts and grandmothers. Still it was handled well. And both actresses and writers are to be commended for the work they've done here. Quite poetically their relationship falls victim to the same issues that many love relationship do, and this is the real message of the film. It's is also about the enduring nature of friendship and the universal longing we all share to be understood, to find someone who really "gets" us.

To be honest it's been a few years since Woody Allen has made a film this insightful and full of wit. It should also be noted that the supporting cast (also comprised of lesser known actors) all acquit themselves well and most are fleshed out enough to be more than mere props that hold up the story. I particularly loved the pregnant co-worker of Jessica's (Jackie Hoffman) whose manner and appearance reminded me of Fran Liebowitz.

These two engaging women have crafted a film that speaks to universal issues, which transcend homosexuality altogether. You will come to care deeply about all of the main characters in this film and I'll only say this about how the film ends - it is very satisfying and extremely smart.

:: zBoneman.com Reader Comments ::

Melanie Rienhold

Melanie Rienhold

Nicely done. I think this is the first review I've read about this film that happens to notice that the movie really has nothing to do with lesbianism. Seriously, I've read hundreds and all they want to talk about is the lesbianism. I'm impressed.

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