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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

When Jessica met Helen . . .

Kissing Jessica Stein

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

This is it, everyone. Clear your shelf of all relationship self-help books: "Kissing Jessica Stein" is the ultimate dating manual for all genders. Get this: The only rule is that there are no rules. The only line of advice is: Try your date out first, and if s/he suits you, then do the best you can. Which doesn't sound like a whole lot to go on, but hey, isn't this the fundamental truth about dating? One simple sentence that explains everything. Such a crystalline conclusion usually requires years of analysis and experience, so I think we're pretty lucky to have this movie -- written by the two lead actresses themselves -- now we can dispense with the analysis and cut right to the chase.

News photo
Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt in "Kissing Jessica Stein"

"Kissing Jessica Stein" also marks the comeback of the New York-based love story ("Someone Like You," Woody Allen films, et al), a genre that, by nature of its backdrop and inhabitants, invites endless delicious dissecting of the love relationship.

The camera first focuses on 28-year-old Manhattan single Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt). Bred in Scarsdale and of excellent Jewish stock, Jessica has a perfectionist streak that makes her an ace copy editor at the paper she works for. But in New York's vicious dating jungle, perfectionism is definitely not an asset. After meeting some truly appalling males from the personal columns, Jessica gets desperate and answers an ad on the "women seeking women" page. She makes a date to meet Helen (Heather Juergensen) in a midtown bar.

Contrary to all of Jessica's stereotypical lesbian notions (shoulder pads, cropped hair), Helen is sexy, smart and decidedly feminine. She's so striking, in fact, that Jessica almost chickens out of their date after wistfully remarking, "Look at you, who wouldn't want to sleep with you?" But Helen coolly takes the lead and coaxes Jessica into what starts out as a shaky, experimental love relationship between two women, one an experienced bisexual and the other, a heterosexual who has only dated men.

"Kissing Jessica Stein" is a landmark dating movie for the '00s, in the way "When Harry Met Sally" was for the '80s. Back then, the big question between Harry and Sally was whether sex was going to ruin or enhance the chummy friendship they had established. For Jessica and Helen in 2002, the friendship is a given and so is sex -- it's just that they don't know exactly how to go about it.

Typically, Jessica buys a detailed manual on lesbian love-making, while Helen thinks that incense and soft lighting is all they need. Jessica says that after two weeks, she'll be ready to ditch inhibitions and launch into sex. Helen wants to shorten that to 10 days.

In public, the embarrassed Jessica insists on referring to themselves as "just friends" while Helen is proud of their relationship and wants to flaunt it. At one point, Helen becomes so frustrated she refers to Jessica as "that cock-tease." Despite their differences, there's no denying that Jessica and Helen are genuinely in love.

And because they're two girls, they're attuned to each other's needs in a way that liberates them from having to play the dating games usually enforced on men and women. Hilarious and instructional is the moment when after a night out, they return to Helen's apartment and the doorbell rings, and it's one of Helen's boyfriends. Seeing that his desire to rip off Helen's dress is far stronger than her own, Jessica goes into a whispered consultation with Helen in the kitchen, telling her that it's OK, she'll leave, because "if I stay, there's no guarantee of sex tonight, but with him, you'll be sure of getting it. And that will make both of us feel much better!" Helen sees the point and agrees to let Jessica go. See how altruistic a girl-girl relationship can be, how filled with common sense?

Most important is that whatever else they go through, Helen and Jessica never lose the mutual kindness that was the starting point of their relationship. Their consideration and gentleness makes us recall the most precious of girlhood best friends. Interestingly, the girls are never like that with the men around them -- they're too busy being defensive, competitive or just pragmatic. Jessica had taken to calling her old college boyfriend (now a colleague at work) by his last name and Helen had a string of lovers to suit different moods like "hungry" or "horny." With each other, they hope to get that perfect balance of physical compatibility and emotional satisfaction.

This is not to say that "Kissing Jessica Stein" is a "women's film"; it would be depressing to think that only women seek these things in a relationship. The movie doesn't end in tears, wedding bells or a whole lot of moralizing. It just sticks to being intelligent and funny, down to the last frame. And girls: It won't exactly make you convert to lesbianism, but it does wake you up to the utter sexiness of the girl-girl thing. But maybe I'm just under the spell of Heather Juergensen as Helen -- a Betty Boop incarnate who likes to share makeup tips, then suddenly leans over to give Jessica a sweet, unexpected kiss.

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