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Lipstick Traces

You wanna kiss Jessica Stein, but does she merit the attention?

 Kissing Jessica Stein ends several times -- a likely explanation of why a film with so short a running time, 94 minutes, feels as though it lasts much longer -- and each conclusion satisfies; each feels real, natural and, best of all, inevitable. That is, except for the actual finale, which so betrays what's come before it that it leaves one walking out of the theater holding a grudge against what was, until its final few minutes, a slight but affable piffle of a film. (At its worst, it resembles an over-long pilot for a new NBC series -- think Leap of Faith.) Perhaps some wise theater programmer will one day schedule Kissing Jessica Stein on a double bill with Kevin Smith's equally frustrating and ragged Chasing Amy, in which a straight man "converts" a lesbian who'd written off men; arguments for and against both films could fill a special issue of the Advocate. I suspect all but a same-sex hobbyist would find a lot wrong with both movies, which submit that sexuality is merely a choice -- a diversion for dilettantes.

In fact, neither movie bears the strength of its convictions; they're romantic comedies, only without the slightest hint of romance aside from whatever clues the movies have already provided us. That they're conflicted -- Kissing Jessica Stein, ironically, takes forever just to build to a peck on the cheek -- may in fact be an honest reflection of the filmmakers' own desires and tastes, but they send such weak signals, you may have trouble picking them up at all. Where Jessica Stein could have been brave and daring, it's instead cowardly: too coy to make good on its promise, too chickenshit to deliver the goods. Whatever goodwill it engenders -- and it's a great deal, because these are likable people uttering witty things full of clarity and insight and empathy -- quickly dissipates.

In all of Manhattan, Lisa Kudrow look- and sound-alike Jessica Stein, played by Jennifer Westfeldt, can find only slimy narcissists, nerdy cheapskates and Jim J. Bullock in the shallow dating pool. When Jessica, a copy editor at an unnamed New York newspaper who fills her lonely hours painting canvasses in her tiny but well-appointed apartment, does find a man with whom she can converse -- and at whom she can stare -- he is, of course, taken. The 28-year-old Jessica figures, as all overly dramatic single 28-year-olds are wont to do, that love, or a shot at it, has left her behind -- a sentiment reinforced by her overbearing but ultimately empathetic Jewish mother (played by an overexcited Tovah Feldshuh), who tries to convince her daughter to date any man wearing a yarmulke.

Kiss this: Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt get closer in Kissing Jessica Stein.
Kiss this: Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt get closer in Kissing Jessica Stein.

The only guy with whom Jessica has any kind of relationship is her editor and ex-boyfriend, Josh (Scott Cohen), who dishes out tsuris like nobody's business. The conventions of romantic comedies lead us to assume that it's only a matter of time before the two reconnect. They bicker and banter like an off-Broadway Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Jessica will be Josh's girl Friday -- on Saturdays and Sundays, as well.

On the other end of town, and at the other end of the spectrum, is Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen), an art-gallery owner with too many options. Hers is a litany of eager-to-please boyfriends, a buffet of lovers from which she chooses depending upon mood and urge. She's Jessica's antithesis in every way: adventurous, ravenous, interesting. And unlike Jessica, Helen is bored of the penis; she's seeking an escape, perhaps temporary or maybe permanent, from the ol' bump and grind. She places a personal ad in the "Women Seeking Women" section of the Village Voice; little does she suspect her bait will lure an amateur, a straight woman so desperate for love that she'll try anything. Sort of.

Helen and Jessica share one thing (a passion for the florid poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke), but before long, they split a kiss, a bed, an apartment and a relationship built, at least at first, out of curiosity. Two straight women find love in each other's "thin arms," as Jessica likes to say. The question, then, becomes this: Is theirs to become a long-lasting attraction, or is it merely a passing fancy -- a detour for two girls sick of boys?

Westfeldt and Juergensen -- who wrote Kissing Jessica Stein and its stage-play predecessor, Lipshtick -- make for a likable couple. They possess a natural chemistry, even if it's like dry ice dipped in hot water, creating less smoke than vapor that quickly dissipates. Their relationship and their witty banter give the film its warm center; their off-screen relationship gives depth and resonance to what unfolds on the screen. Jessica is initially reluctant to engage in a sexual relationship with Helen; the best scenes are those in which she can barely stand to kiss Helen, much less do anything more with her. She treats her less like a lover than a friend; she's conflicted and ashamed, a good Jewish girl riddled with guilt (which proves pointless; hers is a surprisingly understanding family).

Eventually, Jessica and Helen settle into a comfortable routine; against Jessica's better judgment, their relationship becomes an almost passionate one. But just as suddenly as curiosity turns to ardor, the film abruptly betrays its better instincts by giving us the predictable, pat ending. It's as though Westfeldt and Juergensen, whose script was directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (who most recently helmed the Facts of Life reunion TV pic), felt straights would be so off-put by the possibility of a happily-ever-after for two newbie lesbians that they couldn't stand the thought of sacrificing a single ticket sale. So they tease us with a charming, damned-near revolutionary little film about love, and give us instead a movie you just want to kiss off.

 
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