**½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Esther Wurmfeld
screenplay by Jennifer Westfeldt & Heather Juergensen
directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
by Walter Chaw New Yorker Jessica Stein, referred to at one point in Kissing Jessica Stein as the Jewish Sandra Dee, is looking for love in the brack of the late-twentysomething dating pool. This means that we'll get a dating montage during which we sample the poor object choices available to the intrepid, sensitive, modern urban woman about town. A devout reader of Rilke (pegging her as both dreamy and pretentious, which also describes the film at hand), Jessica perks up when she hears a favourite passage quoted in a singles ad--only slightly tortured by the fact that the ad has been placed by another woman, Helen (Heather Juergensen). Helen runs a small art gallery, Jessica is an artist; Helen knows Rilke, Jennifer knows Rilke; and though Jennifer is almost pathologically incapable of falling headlong into lesbian sexuality, through the tender, Color Purple ministrations of Helen, she does come around in time.
Kissing Jessica Stein (adapted from the stage play "Lipstick" by the two stars and authors of the piece (Westfeldt and Juergensen)) manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the stage-to-screen transition in addition to the pratfalls of the standard situation comedy of relationship discomfort. The film is smart and observant, capturing a great deal of honesty in the trials of its intelligent professionals, each of whom appears wholly capable and suited for her chosen vocation. Although the ending is just another breed of Jane Austen's mate-appropriate pairing-off, the dialogue exchanges and interpersonal politics play with wit and a firm (if compacted and vaguely trite) grounding in real-speak. Kissing Jessica Stein appears to have listened in on the conversations of real people, and that sense of familiarity carries the movie.
Particularly able is Tovah Feldshuh as Jessica's kvetching mother, always available for a helpful nudz. Feldshuh gets the one genuinely touching moment in the film and underplays it like a pro. She's right out of a Woody Allen movie, reminding of many an Allen construct but perhaps none more so than Mae Questel's Mother from New York Stories. Feldshuh's performance is better than Westfeldt's collection of neurotic affectations (never has a character so needed the guidance of a Jewish mother archetype), and superior as well to Juergensen's burlesque of feline sexual voracity.
As an Allen homage, Kissing Jessica Stein enjoys a good deal more success than Ed Burns's excrescent Sidewalks of New York but suffers from a similar brand of fetishistic sight-seeing (if this film were shot in London, we'd get dozens of comparable transition shots of Parliament on the Thames) and smug self-satisfaction. The material is weakened, too, by its over-practiced delivery; there's a reason that Elia Kazan chose to go with a different Stella in the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Ultimately, I can't help feeling that the film's desire to be liked sometimes undermines the possibility for an exploration of the thornier aspects of the nature/nurture argument in regards to homosexuality raised by its concept. It strikes me as extremely telling that while Helen uses the Rilke quote in her ad, it's only at the urging of her comic-foil gay friends--but I'm not sure what it's telling of. Originally published: April 5, 2002.
by Bill Chambers 'Bi' golly, Kissing Jessica Stein looks terrific on DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is a hair dim, affecting contrast, but shadow detail is rock-solid. For a low-budget (though not exactly underground-budget) film, source elements are by and large pristine. A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is good, reproducing dialogue with clarity and evincing New York atmosphere by way of well-placed surround cues. If it's big sound you're after this week, rent Monsters, Inc.. This is a disc less defined by its transfer than by its enriching supplements, starting with two commentaries. In the first, director Herman-Wurmfeld and cinematographer Lawrence Sher concentrate mainly on the locations and how they shot them, while in the second, Westfeldt and Juergensen discuss, frankly, their motivations. Both 'couples' were recorded together; between all four speakers, that Kissing Jessica Stein was a labour of love made possible by the generous support of family and friends as much as cold, hard cash comes across tenfold.
Almost a dozen table scraps are featured in a section of Deleted Scenes, with optional commentary for each by Westfeldt & Juergensen. Here you'll find even more of the awful dating montage (once this kind of thing shows up in a movie like Valentine, retire it forever), a preachy climax to the "junkyard" argument between Helen and her gay male friends, a 'facial masks' bit that would've worked very well in context, and more. A nine-minute featurette ("The Making of Kissing Jessica Stein") unfolds inside and just outside the theatre where Westfeldt and Juergensen first staged "Kissing Jessica Stein" off-Broadway; it's no substitute for their film-length yak-track. The theatrical trailer for Kissing Jessica Stein (in full-frame) rounds out the DVD. Originally published: September 19, 2002.
97 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, Spanish DD 2.0 (Stereo); CC; English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Fox