It’s not a perfect movie. It’s not even as good as much of what has been said about it. It can’t seem to decide exactly what it wants to be. It trades too heavily on certain conventions of its genre. And it has an ending that it’s hard not to feel is a cop-out. But for all that, Kissing Jessica Stein is a remarkably funny, very savvy, well-drawn romantic comedy that works more often than it doesn’t. The film boasts a positively glowing performance from star and co-writer Jennifer Westfeldt (See Jane Run). The entire cast is good, but Westfeldt is a genuine treasure. She’s oddly reminiscent of the young Diane Keaton, whom she occasionally resembles, and is blessed with a similar style of dialogue delivery. Her performance in Kissing Jessica Stein ought to propel her to stardom, and is likely part of the reason the film has been favorably compared to the work of Woody Allen. And like Allen’s films, Kissing Jessica Stein is clever. intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence (for example, it assumes the audience knows who Rilke is) and it’s every inch a New York movie (but manages to be one without aping Allen). Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (who appeared in See Jane Run with Westfeldt) has his own feel for New York — one that’s at least compatible with Allen’s. It’s not the unappetizing, grubby vision of the Wonder Bread Woody Allen, Edward Burns, but a highly charged, romanticized vision of the city that manages to capture and isolate the magic that is there, rather than fabricate one (a sequence set in an Indian restaurant is a perfect — and perfectly beautiful — example). It’s perhaps not all that surprising that the film ultimately falls back on genre formula, since its basic premise is anything but formulaic. Fed up with the singular (and very funny from the outside) round of narcissists, morons and weirdos she’s encountered on the dating circuit (not to mention her mother’s non-top efforts to fix her up with a variety of dubiously desirable dates), Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) decides to try her luck in a relationship with a woman instead. And so the apparently straight Jessica finds herself in a relationship with the openly bisexual Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen, who co-wrote the script with Westfeldt). This is deftly and amusingly handled in a way that rings true while decidedly breaking with many traditions of the genre — thanks in no small measure, of course, to the uniqueness of the situation. Even when it crosses the line into predictability (when their relationship is finally consummated, the set-up is almost painfully obvious), it always feels right and believable. There’s an especially fine moment where Helen has spent several minutes complaining about the relationship to her friends, only to receive a phone call from Jessica, whereupon her frustration and anger fall completely away and she immediately gives in to her feelings for the other woman so obviously that one of her friends asks, “What are you? 12?” It’s very real and very human. Kissing Jessica Stein is full of such moments. It can even take a cliche and make it seem real, if not fresh, as when Jessica’s mother (Tovah Feldshuh) gives her “blessing” to the relationship her daughter has done her damndest to keep from her. The trouble — and it’s not enough to scuttle the film — is that the movie finally wants to have it both ways and create an improbable ending that leaves everyone satisfied and happy. It doesn’t really work, but at least it’s obvious that this has been in the filmmakers’ minds from the onset (the genre simply doesn’t allow for a pair of battling male-female co-workers without a reason). The ending may not be the ending you want the movie to have, but by then you’ve been so thoroughly entertained, so touched by the film’s moments of simple humanity and had such a good time that you’re more than willing to forgive the lapse. See it for what is good, see it for what is effective, but above all see it for Jennifer Westfeldt’s performance.
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