- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

"Kissing Jessica Stein" is about as skittish, expedient and negligible as a would-be-topical sex farce can hope to become, but audiences may be willing to humor the rampant coyness of it all for the simplest of reasons: a fresh and attractive set of newcomers.

Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, the young actresses who play the principal characters, Jessica Stein and Helen Cooper, respectively, also collaborated on the screenplay. An "original" for all practical purposes, it expanded from a theater workshop piece called "Lipschtick," an improvised skit. In some respects, the material hasn't transcended that origin.

Staked to a modest budget by Fox Searchlight, the project has been directed with promising gusto and playfulness by another novice, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. (Everyone's last name seems to share a humorous tendency; you keep double-checking to see if you've spelled it correctly.)

Miss Westfeldt and Miss Juergensen emerge from an often scatterbrained context with obvious photogenic and temperamental promise of their own. While pretending to depict a whirlwind, perishable love affair, they get off to a fetching start as performers who can fabricate an exploitable vehicle.

"Jessica Stein" isn't all that far removed from the sort of thing that might have transpired if the sitcom mores of a generation ago had allowed Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards and Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern to grow so desperate about a dating slump that they ended up getting ideas about each other for a wacky episode or two.

Lower Manhattan is the principal playpen for "Jessica Stein." The title character works as an editor for a weekly newspaper. She is in contact frequently with a well-to-do family in suburban Scarsdale, notably Tovah Feldshuh as an overwhelming yet likable mother, Judy Stein, who obviously could dominate a sitcom all her own.

Feelings of inadequacy mock Jessica when she is first encountered: Her younger brother is about to marry; a friend at work is happily pregnant for the first time; the dating pool has become hopeless to empty; insomnia haunts her nights.

Reluctantly, she answers a women-seeking-women personals ad placed in her own publication by Helen, an art gallery manager and nominally an urban sophisticate whose problems reflect promiscuous abundance rather than scarcity.

Jessica attempts to bolt moments after meeting Helen for a casual afternoon date. Miss Westfeldt gets to be as flustered and apologetic as Diane Keaton in her Annie Hall phase during this get-acquainted interlude.

Despite the contemporary setting, "Kissing Jessica Stein" remains wedded to many a vintage cliche, starting with the idea that a kiss itself is the supreme decider when a girl is confused about her attraction to one suitor or another. There's a prolonged tease about the consummation of the affair, which must await incremental yielding on Jessica's part. A witty plot twist is invented to settle the lingering issue: Judy Stein insists on inviting Helen to a family Shabbat service; the new friends end up sharing Jessica's forever girlish Scarsdale bedroom for the weekend.

The director of "Kissing Jessica Stein" must juggle deceits in a supposedly uninhibited context. Mr. Herman-Wurmfeld (please, settle on one or the other) attempts to approach the contradiction as frivolous housekeeping. That rearranges the dust without making sense of anyone's behavior. He may be shortchanging a stronger urge to show us his musical-comedy stuff: There are a couple of nifty jokes with show tunes, "Put on a Happy Face" at the outset and "Manhattan" later on.

The main trick is to sustain enough giddy fleetness and incidental distraction to prevent anything of a persuasively earnest or consequential nature from taking hold.

Miss Westfeldt and Miss Juergensen find it expedient to trigger an abrupt estrangement at about the point when you expect a starry-eyed fade-out to be the next order of whimsy.

Their switch is likely to prove an astute act of backsliding. We discover that a masculine soul mate is being reserved for Jessica. Moreover, he's exceptionally appealing as embodied by Scott Cohen, cast as a lurking supplicant named Josh Meyers, Jessica's immediate superior at the paper.

Josh and Jessica once were sweethearts. Evidently, passion faded into a kind of brother-sister familiarity somewhere along the line. They don't hesitate to give each other a hard time. The filmmakers underrate Josh by pretending he would be oblivious to an emerging something or other between Jessica and Helen.

However, they allow him to blossom as a guy who suddenly finds himself heartsick over a woman he thought he had outgrown so much so that many people may exit thinking of Josh as the protagonist and the story as his triumph.

It's never too late to go straight, even if you spend about 99 percent of the time flaunting unconventional arrangements. One grace note definitely is missing: the reaction of Judy Stein when she learns that Jessica may have identified the right guy after all.

**

TITLE: "Kissing Jessica Stein"

RATING: R (Frequent sexual candor and facetiousness; plot revolving around a lesbian love affair; occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

Maximum rating: Four Stars


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