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[whitespace] 'Kissing Jessica Stein'
Gift Exchange: Heather Jvergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt play Santa in 'Kissing Jessica Stein.'

Ally McStein

'Kissing Jessica Stein' is a post-Ephron affront

By Richard von Busack

THESE DAYS, you know you're up against it the minute you see the New York skyline on the screen and hear Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack. The more optimistic, however, may not know what's up until they see the by now traditional "dog parade" montage of bad blind dates (property of Spike Lee)--one date too lecherous, one date too yuppified, one date too gay. ... Indeed, Kissing Jessica Stein is yet another one of those fake-sophisticated, faux-Manhattan romantic comedies pulled shapeless by the gravity of television. Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who did the made-in-San Francisco farce Fanci's Persuasion, has as his next project The Facts of Life TV reunion.

Kissing Jessica Stein has a title that may lure males into thinking they're going to see something in the vein of Philip Roth. What we get instead is a gender-confused romance that plays out as a ringing endorsement of heterosexuality--a risky view, that, but sometimes people have to put themselves on the line. The title character, played by Jennifer Westfeldt, is a blank-eyed, worn version of Jennifer Aniston, with a bad case of Scarsdale lockjaw. Jessica Stein is vaguely a painter; her day job is copy-editing a newspaper. After a series of dates, she decides to secretly answer a personal ad from a woman. Her suitor is the somewhat loose, slightly multiculti Helen (Heather Juergensen), who works, sort of, at an art gallery (sample dialogue: "The New Yorker critic is here! She's creaming in her pants!").

Helen and Jessica get together, and the film's one nod toward realism is that it's not a perfect romance. Jessica is just experimenting with women: the relationship is a good friendship but is not happening in bed. There is a Mr. Darcy figure loitering in the wings. It's Jessica's boss at the newspaper where she works, her old boyfriend from college, Josh Meyer (Scott Cohen). He likes to deride Jessica in public and always refers to her by her last name. It's explained later that his bitterness is due to the fact that he originally wanted to be "another Hemingway."

Filmmakers who create these erstwhile independent movies--often, Hollywood films except for the catering--are rarely exposed to the resentment of people who actually read a little. It's aggravating seeing books being used as props in lousy post-Nora Ephron romantic comedies. Have books improved Jessica's life or broadened her mind or taught her anything about the world? No, she's still a twitty, snobby creature, so out of touch with herself that she doesn't even really know if she's sexually aroused or not. Some will want to encourage any film as long as it has the dangerous subject of gay people in it. I can't go along for that ride. This certain-to-be-praised little nothing of a film is just the Calista Flockhart-smooches-Lucy Liu episode of Ally McBeal spread out to feature-film length. Kissing Jessica Stein treats the topic of lesbians in little safe doses as if taking care of the syndrome with a homeopathic pill.

Kissing Jessica Stein (R; 94 min.), directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, written by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, photographed by Lawrence Shur and starring Juergensen and Westfeldt, plays at Camera 3 and Centurty 25 in San Jose and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the March 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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