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Kissing Jessica Stein

(2002) ** R
94 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Cast: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen, David Aaron Baker, Carson Elrod.

The latest New Yawk Jew relationship comedy, Kissing Jessica Stein, plays a little like a ripoff of Rob Reiner's ripoff of Woody Allen's Annie Hall, but with lesbian chic. Despite the faint praise, the project initiated by actresses-turned-writers Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen (and invisibly directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld) bounces along amiably enough for 94 minutes, for those who feel confident this is their cup of lapsang souchon.

The liplocking heroine in question has become bored with the succession of stupid and freakish men who strike her as her only dating options (established in a trés-tired montage), so she dips her toe in the lesbian dating scene by answering a classified ad. The film hedges its bets considerably by having neither Jessica nor her new, ad-placing acquaintance Helen forego straight sex, which returns repeatedly to throw the new couple off track. First, Jessica is pathologically hesitant to engage in sex with with Helen, but she warms up, only to turn into a chronic cold fish again. When the relationship turns sour, Jessica freaks out, alternately pining for Helen and her rat-a-tat-tat ex-boyfriend (Scott Cohen), who morphs somewhat unconvincingly into a puppy-dog. It's unclear whether lesbian audiences will find all this endearing or offensive, but in all likelihood, neither sexual conservatives or liberals will be entirely pleased with the film's gender politics.

More importantly, the film's entertainment value is questionable, with occasional chuckle-worthy lines and warm, sitcom-y fuzzies in the development of the sexual and familial relationships (Jessica's mother, played by Tovah Feldshuh, is a key barometer of her choices in the film). Westfeldt and Juergensen bring a decent edge to their performances, but as writers, they abuse the notion of the character arc. By the end, they've swung more than one character too far and too quickly away from the character they've labored to manifest in the early going, though they have, of course, given themselves snappy lines in the process. Cohen and Feldshuh, forced to serve as underdeveloped foils for Stein, deserve better. In the end, it's a Chinese take-out comedy that may satisfy your craving, but leave you feeling strangely unsatisfied by the time you walk away from the table.

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