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KISSING JESSICA STEIN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen, Jackie Hoffman, Tovah Feldshuh
Director:  Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  September 17, 2002

“Who’s the guy?”

“There’s no guy.”

“Come on, come on, you’re a terrible liar.”

“Trust me.  There’s NO GUY.”

Film ***1/2

It always feels good to laugh, and I laughed harder, louder and more often during Kissing Jessica Stein than just about any film in recent memory.  The fact that I happened to love, care for and be emotionally involved in the characters as well was a pleasant unexpected bonus.

The film was co-written and co-produced by its two leading stars, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, and if there’s any justice, they’ll score an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, which is one of the funniest and most insightful since When Harry Met Sally.  You could compare them to Woody Allen, but their film never gets too smart for its own good, and manages to win our empathy for a neurotic central character instead of inspiring annoyance.

That character is the Jessica Stein of the title (Westfeldt), an attractive single woman whose penchant for perfectionism has been a perpetual snag in her ability to form relationships from day one.  At a friendly dinner one night, her boss (Cohen) calls her out for what she is, which might have partially inspired her next move.

Responding to a quote in a newspaper personal column, Jessica finds herself face to face with Helen (Juergensen).  Neither have had experience in a same sex relationship before.  For the vivacious Helen, it’s simply a matter of setting her sights on what she wants and going after it.  For the unstable Jessica, things are a little more complex…a “Jewish Sandra Dee”, as a frustrated Helen eloquently states it.

Their “experimental” relationship works for the audience on many levels.  Yes, it’s sexy, but also romantic, and terribly funny.  Jessica’s first night involves a rather bookish approach to the event that has to be seen to be believed.

But ultimately, it works because our hearts go out to both of these women.  Each one is likable in her own way, and we can’t help but want to see something good come out of their involvement.  But the film’s biggest strength is that it doesn’t make outside scoffs and stares the stumbling block to their happiness…as with most relationships, it’s what they each bring that might cause the trouble.

Both Westfeldt and Juergensen are radiant in their roles, investing their characters not only with their performance, but with the words they scripted for them as well.  Some of the lines that made me laugh the hardest are ones I can’t reprint here; suffice to say, you’ll recognize some of them when you hear them.

It’s so rare to find a romantic comedy that IS actually romantic and comic, while at the same time, smart and truthful, and doesn’t treat its audience like lower order intellectuals.  Kissing Jessica Stein is a sweet natured, breezy, entertaining breath of fresh air that tickles the funny bone, touches the heart, and stimulates the mind all at the same time. 

Video ***

This is a mostly good anamorphic offering from Fox…no real complaints, but the film was obviously shot for a lower than average budget, and sometimes that comes across in the overall look.  Colors are what they are; natural looking but not overly expressive as they might be with a bigger art direction budget.  Images are well detailed, but sometimes a little softer than normal in different kinds of light.  There is no grain, break-up or other artifacts of compression, and the overall presentation certainly conveys the subject matter nicely.

Audio ***

Though mostly a dialogue oriented film, the 5.1 soundtrack is more than serviceable for the added music touches that give it dynamic range and open up the surround environment a little more.  Spoken words are clear throughout, and no noise interferes with audio.

Features ***1/2

This disc boasts not one but two commentary tracks.  Both are informative and pleasant listens, but I think most will go right to the one with Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen right away.  They have a lot to say about the development of the project, the filming, and the people they worked with, and their casual manner and sometimes humorous delivery make for an enjoyable, friendly chat session.  The other track features director Charles Herman-Wurfield and his DP Lawrence Sher.

The disc also contains an 8 minute featurette with its two leading ladies, an original trailer, and a collection of 9 deleted/alternate scenes with outtakes, featuring optional commentary by Ms. Westfeldt and Ms. Juergensen.

Summary:

You’ll want to wrap your arms around Kissing Jessica Stein.  If you’ve thought for far too long that romantic comedies had nothing new under the sun, you owe it to yourself to check out this fresh, funny and smart film.