Pucker Up and Laugh

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Jessica Stein has a problem. Everybody wants to kiss her. She's that cute.

To see her is to want to kiss her. She looks like Lisa Kudrow and she has Sandra Bullock's laugh and under it all, that would be Cameron Diaz's body. I would have even kissed the screen upon which Jessica's giant image is flung, but there were security guards between it and me, and a reputation, as well as a career, to consider.

But here's the real problem for Jessica: She doesn't want to be kissed. None of the men she meets is good enough to plant lips on that perfect button of a face, to the tune of that melodious surge of a self-aware giggle.

No, Jessica doesn't want to be kissed until she meets . . . Helen.

Hmm. You can see the question on which "Kissing Jessica Stein" is based: Can a nice Jewish girl from Scarsdale find happiness in the arms of a beautiful if scrawny shiksa from – well, from south of Houston Street?

It's not that Jessica has a thing for girls. It's just that she has a thing for Helen.

"Kissing Jessica Stein," brilliant and brilliantly slight (96 minutes, a blessing!), explores Jessica's difficulty, which turns out to be that she wants a best friend while Helen – oh, you scamp! – wants a snugglebunny.

The movie, written and performed by two actresses who will undoubtedly ride it to the big time, is the freshest, hippest, un-hippiest (The gals are both skinny! They eat like birds!) romantic comedy to come along in months, possibly years. So it's a chick-meets-chick, chick-loses-chick, chick-gets-chick movie. Most of us can live with that.

Jessica, played by the adorable Jennifer Westfeldt, and Helen, played by the gangly, weirdly beautiful Heather Juergensen, are typically neurotic if reluctant players in the meat market of New York dating. Both are sick and tired of it: Jessica, of the matches her overbearing mother (Tovah Feldshuh) arranges, with successful if unbearably dreary Jewish men; Helen, of the slick, arty types who fill her world (she's a gallery manager).

It's Helen who realizes there's one niche in her experiential resume as yet unfilled. It's Helen who takes out the Village Voice personal ad that hits all the right notes (that is, if you consider Rilke a right note, but that's another story), and Jessica who sees it, falls in love with it, and is then perplexed to discover that it's in the Women Seeking Women category. But such is her love for someone who digs Rilke that she throws caution to the wind.

You know how it is when it's right? It can turn on something seemingly frivolous but actually freighted with meaning: At that awkward first meeting, which is going south in a hurry, Helen uses the word "marinate," and somehow that really gets to Jessica. That works? Hard to believe, but the movie says it does.

So the funny business starts, literally. The screenplay, which was begun as a comedy sketch, focuses on the two non-lesbians as they try to gropingly negotiate their way through a lesbian sex experience. Nobody's sure what to do or where to do it, or who does it first. But then they figure out that they've got everything a man has, except for the one thing that wasn't that important in the first place. (Ouch!) It wouldn't be nearly so funny if it weren't so real.

That's the fabulous thing about "Kissing Jessica Stein," which is that even as it clings to classic romantic-comedy artifice – lovers separated by their ambivalence toward their own sexuality – it never feels farcical, manipulative or, curse of curses, zany. ("Zany" is what studio publicists call unfunny comedies.)

It's actually quite touching as each of these women, while keeping up impossibly witty and knowing repartee, nevertheless emerges as truly human. One is the Jewish American Princess, the other the daffy artnik with the killer body; but in time, you don't see Jewish and cute or gentile and hot, you just see people.

Then the film creates a world for each of them, a tangled skein of pain and family and expectation, worried friends, supportive friends, disappointed friends, even jealous friends. It's funny and human and really pretty damned wonderful, all at once.

KISSING JESSICA STEIN (R, 96 minutes)Contains sexual situations. At General Cinema at Mazza Gallerie.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company