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'Kissing Jessica Stein' a stirring experience


Kissing Jessica Stein is a sprightly movie about what used to be called "sexual experimentation." It hinges on a lesbian love affair - no, not just hinges, but pivots, sways and spins. The movie is delightfully unorthodox on the subjects of homosexuality, journalism, Judaism, art and family.

It raises the question, "Is sexual preference a matter of choice or birth?" Then it boldly answers, "Either or both!" - sparking arguments that start on the screen and ignite the audience. The director, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, and the writer-stars, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, pitch their ambitions a bit beyond their reach. And it's a good thing, too. Even when the movie abruptly switches gears, you know it's because they're working something out.

Westfeldt as Jessica Stein, a Manhattan copy editor and would-be painter, and Juergensen as Helen Cooper, a downtown art-gallery manager, are amazingly adept at embodying characters in varying degrees of comfort within their skin. Maybe because they also wrote these life-size heroines, you feel as if you're seeing real behavior artfully transmuted into satiric comedy. It's a bit like watching the mating and bonding rituals of creatures in their natural habitats. But these women are too individual to be contained by ritual.

The Bohemian Helen, who gets the ball rolling with an enticing, literate ad in the "Women Seeking Women" section of a weekly paper's personals, starts out as a hetero-slut, keeping a string of men on tap for different purposes. Juergensen conveys a certain kind of frantic, unfocused appetite - almost too general to be called lust - as brilliantly as anyone has done it. The sexiest moment may be the unstressed instant when she registers the erotic glance of a female stranger at her art gallery and realizes it may be time for her (in Seinfeld parlance) to "switch teams."

Westfeldt is equally uncanny at expressing the curiosity that ripples across her taut personality. The "nice Jewish boy" and even the "bad Jewish boy" have been done to death in urban comedy, and so have the dreaded stereotypes of the Jewish-American Princess, and the nice Jewish girl yearning for excitement a la Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Here is a nice Jewish girl who wants an appreciative and compatible lover. She has given up on that person being necessarily male.

Jessica has a perfectionist streak, but the movie is a comedy of imperfection - of not-quite-opposites not totally meshing. And it really is a comedy. Both these women, as well as other people in their lives, gain self-knowledge and potential happiness through the ups and downs of their relationship.

Let me put it this way: This movie is for all those who realize that the slight smudge of an A-minus is more catalytic and sexy than the cool unapproachability of an A-plus. I use a grading analogy on purpose: The characters may not be academic, but they view their lives as learning curves. Jessica goes looking for a broader dating pool because she can't find a man with a reasonable vocabulary and a creative temperament and wit; Helen promises to have all three. When Jessica shows up for a date with Helen and then freaks out at what she's doing, Helen is instinctive and savvy enough to go slow and advise Jessica to let the possibilities "marinate." The sensuous humor behind her use of that word attracts Jessica as much as the wisdom behind it.

The script is the creation of women who let their themes, personalities and subplots marinate and then serve them piping hot. The Jessica-Helen seduction is physical and intellectual - it's based in part on that old saw, "You fall in love with the mind." But it's also based on the recognition that same-sex affinities result in lasting friendships that have erotic components. The movie toys with the mysteries of masculine and feminine identity. When Helen turns Jessica on to the concept of blending lipsticks, it isn't just a metaphor for a more open and malleable view of life - these ladies really do like to talk about makeup. (The script grew out of the actor-writers' stage piece, Lipschtick.)

In its own modest way, the movie is about bravery in life and in work, the need to break away from your moorings - and sometimes, to return to them. The movie is smart in comedic as well as life terms: It sympathizes with all sides of its family, friendly and sexual relationships. In the end, all you want for these characters is what you want for best pals: whatever they want for themselves.

Tovah Feldshuh has never been better on-screen than as Jessica's mother; at first, she seems a genial fool, talking about eligible men during a High Holidays service (it triggers a great Mom-I'm-atoning gag). But by the time you see her as a host to a potential setup for Jessica during Sabbath dinner, her warmth begins to win you over; at a crucial moment she reveals herself to be genuinely caring and wise.

Jackie Hoffman plays Jessica's pregnant work buddy, a married woman consumed by curious thoughts of lesbianism; she has the gravelly, cigarette-gray flair of the late Thelma Ritter. And Scott Cohen pulls off arguably the most difficult role of Jessica's boss and ex-boyfriend, whose feelings for Jessica are bound up in his sense of disappointing her, and himself. He thought he'd be a great writer, not an editor. Jessica's risky decision to go public with her painting inspires him even before he learns of the risks she's taken with her life.

Kissing Jessica Stein takes a turn that may attract the same unjust P.C. ire that stigmatized Robert Towne's Personal Best. Only the humorless should be offended. This movie is about the survival of the open-minded. As far as current American independents go, it's the fastest and the funniest.

Kissing Jessica

Starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen

Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld

Rated R (sex and language)

Released by Fox Searchlight

Running time 96 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2

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