Category: comedies / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 11 of 100
Heard the one about the nice Jewish girl, good job at a Manhattan newspaper, dabbles in painting – oy vey, if only she was only more serious about, could have her own show! – but no luck with the men, nice boy she used to go out with, editor at the newspaper, not good enough for her though, same story with every man she meets, so choosey; heard the one about how she impulsively replies to an ad in the personal columns from a bi-curious gallery owner?
Anyone who thinks I was being stereotypical with that first paragraph should watch the first ten minutes of ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’. The Jewish humour is laid on so heavily you’d think Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman and Rabbi Lionel Blue had spent a few hours after synagogue smoking pot and trying out routines on each other. Although I can’t imagine Woody Allen or Rabbi Blue coming up with a routine in which an ostensibly straight woman and a bi-curious woman pour over some pamphlets on sex aids and marvel, “Wow, lesbians can accessorize!” (I can, however, imagine this in a Sarah Silverman routine.)
Fortunately, the avalanche of Jewish humour (and, by extension, Jewish stereotypes; Jessica’s overbearing mother, always sounding off about the important jobs her children have, is a case in point) quickly abates and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s quirky rom-com settles into a comedy-of-embarrassments groove, generating some fairly consistent wry humour and a couple of belly laughs as well as fielding a few unexpected narrative developments en route to a low-key and not-quite-as-expected ending that is nonetheless honest in not taking the necessarily crowd-pleasing route. (A lesbian friend of mine hates this movie purely for its last five minutes.)
I’m chary of classifying ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ as a lesbian film (and male aficionados of lipstick lesbianism erotica will be sorely disappointed) – I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same grouping as ‘Desert Hearts’, ‘Better than Chocolate’ or ‘When Night is Falling’, even though two of those deal with the sexual and emotional awakening of a hitherto straight protagonist. I’m a tad more comfortable with hanging the “romantic comedy” tag on it, even though it SPOILER ALERT breaks the cardinal rule of rom-com by not having the couple you want to end up together actually end up together SPOILERS END and adopts a more sardonic tone in its use of humour than, say, the more ribald ‘When Harry Met Sally’ or the playing-to-the-gallery of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Having said that, it’s a hell of a lot more amusing and entertaining than the tedious ‘Notting Hill’ or the by-the-numbers ‘Wimbledon’.
The slender plot has the eponymous Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) – a buttoned-down perfectionist – pushed by her mother, her grandmother and her well-meaning friends into a series of disastrously awful dates (an excruciatingly funny montage has her reeling from the attentions of a punctilious bow-tie-wearing accountant, an over-eager nerd who won’t stop talking, and a silk-shirt wearing gigolo type. Ploughing through screeds of new ads in the personal columns, an over-abundance of WLTM-style acronyms rendering the whole thing increasingly impersonal, she comes across an ad which quotes Rilke: “It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical will live the relation to another as something alive.” Initially disappointed that the ad has appeared in the “women seeking women” section, a dispiriting conversation with former boyfriend (and current boss) Josh (Scott Cohen) compels her to answer it. The ad has been placed by free-spirited gallery owner Helen (Heather Juergensen), a striking and confident woman who is not wanting for male consorts but who is looking for something more.
Little more needs to be offered by way of synopsis: ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ unfolds more as a series of archly observed vignettes than anything as structured as a story, and the pleasure is in the sparky chemistry between the leads – Westfeldt and Juergensen co-wrote the screenplay, developing it from a series of comedy sketches they performed together – and the wryly observed characterizations encouraged by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s unobtrusive directorial style. Josh, in particular, is granted a character arc that takes him from self-righteous uppity twat to something more sympathetic. His thwarted-writer-turned-editor subplot plays out in subtle counterpoint to Jessica and Helen’s developing relationship.
‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ is an affable little movie that, for the most part, treats its audience intelligently. It’s not perfect: the more heavy-handed examples of Jewish humour fall flat, Herman-Wurmfeld could have done with reining in Westfeldt’s hyper-ventilated performance a bit, and the ending feels rushed and under-developed. Still, it’s a pleasant alternative to the usual identikit rom-coms the studios pump out, and a decent Valentine’s Day recommendation for movie lovers who prefer their romantic fare not smothered in syrup.