Kissing Jessica Stein

(Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, USA, 2002)


I am constantly astonished by the coyness with which the media tiptoe around the word lesbian. Kissing Jessica Stein, for instance, is the sort of movie that gets cryptically promoted as "a love story with a difference" or "another take on romantic comedy".

Most telling of all is the anxiety underlying that ultimate reassurance made to straight audiences: a movie about queers is acceptable if it has something called "universal relevance". But does anybody ever feel the need to declare that a movie about cricket, submarines or gangsters is universally relevant?

Kissing Jessica Stein is pretty tame stuff by any standard. Beginning as a combination of a Woody Allen film and an episode of TV's Sex and the City, it introduces us to the lives of New Yorkers Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Helen (Heather Juergensen).

Jessica is a newspaper subeditor who rather snobbily judges people on the basis of how well they use words. When, at their first meeting, cool art gallery worker Helen drops the word marinate casually and wittily, Jessica is instantly hooked. Although both are new to lesbianism, Helen is the bolder in her willingness to explore the possibilities, while Jessica frets neurotically.

There is little that is surprising in this movie. Jewish families, glimpses of the dating game, the rise-and-fall arc of a typical love relationship – all are duly delivered. But Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's direction (it was his entrée to the studio project Legally Blonde 2 [2003]) is brisk, and the evident rapport between Westfeldt and Juergensen as performers keeps the scenes fresh and inventive.

The only point at which Kissing Jessica Stein fumbles is when it tries for a resolution that is both sweet and supposedly wise. Like many independent films of the mid '90s which were obsessed with the drama of the turn – when straights become gay – this one falls into some odd assumptions about what it takes to remain queer. The result is an unsatisfying wrap-up to an otherwise modest, funny and enjoyable movie.

© Adrian Martin November 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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