Just in case there was any confusion, there’s an early scene in Kissing Jessica Stein in which the two women whose love affair dominates the film discuss lipstick application techniques and preferences in expert detail. These aren’t lesbians of the Go Fish/High Art variety we’ve seen recently in independent film. In fact, that’s the hook: Same-sex love can grow anywhere, even among two fairly straight girls who almost accidentally fall for each other.
And the lipstick isn’t the only glossy thing about this sweet-hearted romantic comedy starring screenwriters Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen. Though its sense of wonder is stronger than its sense of structure, it’s still a funny, breezy tour of an amorous avenue we haven’t been down too often yet.
Jessica (Westfeldt) is a neurotic blonde copy editor for a Manhattan newspaper. Her boss is Josh (Scott Cohen), who’s also her brother’s college buddy and her former boyfriend. Fed up with the caricatured, sad-sack male suitors who fill a montage early in the film, and sparked to desperate action by her brother’s engagement, she answers a personal ad from a woman.
It’s Helen (Juergensen), a tall, brunette art-gallery employee who’s tired of juggling three boyfriends. She wants to branch out, and she’s immediately drawn to Jessica, who initially resists her own impulses but soon returns the attention in a long series of lesbian training exercises more comic than erotic (“I think we’re coming along pretty well,” Jessica says after a trip to first base).
But it grows beyond an experiment. Jessica and Helen have the physical chemistry of old pals, which makes their burgeoning friendship the most believable part of their tentative romance. Midway through the picture, Jessica is talking to her mother on a cell phone while in a cab with Helen. In the midst of making up a reason to avoid coming home, she reaches out to stroke Helen’s knee, mumbling, “What are these pants? I’m so borrowing them!”
The actresses based the screenplay on a series of comedy sketches they wrote several years ago, but the film feels fresh up to a frantic, unsatisfying ending. Kissing Jessica Stein constantly errs on the side of lightness. That’s the way of romantic comedy, but it also indicates that the writers, just like the characters they play, had no idea where to go after the initial intoxication of love. Josh’s long-smoldering torch for Jessica becomes a complication that it’s incapable of resolving.
In addition, the film only glancingly brings up the subject that’s peeved real lesbians since long before Ben Affleck chased Amy: the celebration of women who try this lifestyle because everybody else is doing it, or simply because they’re bored and curious (wasn’t it Margaret Cho who said there’s no such thing as a bisexual, that some people are just greedy?) One of Jessica’s gay male friends accuses her of doing just that, but another character argues that she’s free to do what she wants. Instead of sermonizing or simplifying, this film doesn’t pretend to have any answers to a question that’s larger than a 90-minute comedy, and that’s positively refreshing.
Bigger questions aside, the smaller details come together well. The picture reflects its tiny budget in the brisk, economical direction of first-timer Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who uses noisy locations and real people as extras simply because they couldn’t afford anything else. They give the film a pleasant authenticity while still not losing the Gotham-as-wonderland vibe of Sex and the City or You’ve Got Mail.
It’s refreshing to find a romantic comedy that believes wholeheartedly in the genre, yet still dares to step outside its boundaries, however briefly. Like the romance of its main characters, Kissing Jessica Stein is an experiment grounded in familiarity. You’ve got to give them credit for trying.