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'Kissing Jessica Stein'
Last uploaded : Friday 26th Jul 2002 at 22:50
Contributed by : Alexander Walker


Mixing friendship and romance

'Kissing Jessica Stein'
(15) Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Scott Cohen. Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. US. 2001. 96mins.

Read Alexander Walker on the latest films every Thursday in the Evening Standard

Honestly and truly - sentiments it honours all the way through - Kissing Jessica Stein is the best comedy in town. Here is your summer treat.

I weep with exasperation to think that we in Britain, with all our squandered Lottery millions, haven't yet produced a single romantic comedy as witty, warm, incisive, socially precise, sexually candid - and yes, Jewish. It's a New York film to its last frame, and a Jewish one from its very first.

"Stop feeding her perfectionism," hisses Jessica Stein's mother to Jessica's granny at the Day of Atonement service, where the old lady's been tut-tutting over the physical shortcomings of available male unmarrieds on the other side of the synagogue. The self-punishingly high standards a nice Jewish girl is brought up to aspire to in herself and seek out in a husband: that's the sub-text of a hugely funny attempt by one girl to date the right man and, failing to do so, to find the right girl.

Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) is a twentysomething copy-editor on a collegiate-type NY news-sheet whose sarcastic editor Josh (Scott Cohen) patronises her with advice on finding a man. She pitches her standards so high she'll find it hard to meet guys worthy of her.

"I'm sure you meet plenty worthy of yours," Jessica cracks back at this water-cooler Solomon. But, being Jewish, she worries. In rapid succession, like riffling through a deck of cards all of which are knaves, we see her male dates, from the one who opens the menu for her and announces: The lady will have ... , to the one who tots up the bill, divides the cost of a shared salad, and says: I d like to represent you as accountant, and boyfriend if possible. In desperation, Jessica takes out a lonely-hearts ad and, across town, Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen), art-gallery co-director, responds.

Both actresses wrote the play which Charles Herman-Wurmfeld has directed with grace, subtlety and a relish for the literate, articulate, dynamic, Lower Manhattan scene where youngish people swap jokes, partners, put-downs, confidences and relationships with Sex and the City fluency. Jessica s wanted ad incorporates a quote from Rilke. Can you imagine, in your wildest fantasy, any British sitcom having heard of Rilke, never mind using him for a come-hither?

The two girls first date is handled with charming wishfulness and bashfulness. Jessica calls it off on the spot. Helen stands firm on the sidewalk, then plays an ace: she lets her things fall out of her handbag. In one shared instant of feminine mishap, two hearts meet. But they decide: Let it marinate , a word-choice that reflects the affairs New Yorker-ish understatement and makes the average Woody Allen movie feel caricatural and gross.

In the ensuing courtship, increasingly intimate but tentative, one move forward is followed by an electric-shock recoil. We re kept guessing about the real sexual orientation of Helen and Jessica.

Is one really coming out, or simply desperate for a gal-pal? Is the other really settling for the gay life, or simply pissed off with men? Helen enjoys sex with men impulsively and boldly; Jessica is intrigued by same-sex potentials ("I'm surprised to learn that lesbians accessorise"), but keeps putting the brakes on. Nothing is cut to fit a foregone affinity; all bets are kept in play.

It's not just the sex angle that s handled in level-headed fashion. The film views Jewish family life with knowing acceptance and affectionate tolerance for even its taboos. The smart girls are no match for Jessica s traditionally managerial mother. Her command to the gentile Helen to sit down and eat with the family is a hilarious piece of insider-outsider ethnic comedy around a dinner table where male guests are treated as if they re already sons-in-law.

The two girls discomfort becomes unexpected bliss when circumstances dictate an overnight stay and they end up together - at last - in Jessica's old bedroom. Tovah Feldshuh never turns the mother into a Jewish monster, though every reflex she makes - even stacking bread rolls into the basket with the same matriarchal authority as lining up potential husbands - tells you where she s coming from. She shows an unexpectedly wise and touching streak. Their chemistry bonds the two stars together with wholesome ease. Their talk is never "talky", but sounds like stuff overheard, not written down: fresh, zingy, free-style and constantly funny.

Just listening to their exchange of data on blending the perfect lipstick makes a man like myself realise how wide a swathe of gender information he s been missing in life.

Best of all, the film knows not only when to stop, but how to stop: not in wish-fulfilment, but in keeping with something rarer in the movies. Call it "life itself".

JewishComment is grateful to The Evening Standard/Associated Newspapers for permission to print this review.
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