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An uptight and conservative woman, working on tenure as a literacy professor at a large urban university, finds herself strangely attracted to a free-spirited, liberal woman who works at a local carnival that comes to town.
Jessica Stein is a single, straight, successful, journalist, part of a bonded Jewish family living in New York City, who finds herself not as straight as she thought when Jessica meets and begins an intense friendship with career woman Helen Cooper which ultimately leads to romance. Written by
A Risky Plot That Plays Beautifully-A Glorious Winner
The mantra of the successful and single career woman in New York City, and undoubtedly elsewhere, seems to have evolved to "All the good men are either married or gay." But still, through singles ads and avocation-based meeting places and just hope they persevere. Few decide that answering an ad in The Village Voice placed by a lesbian or bisexual woman is an antidote to the scarce-available-man dilemma.
That's just what copy editor and hopeful painter "Jessica" (Jennifer Westfeldt) does in "Kissing Jessica Stein" leading to an awkward first encounter, then a close friendship and ultimately an intimate relationship with a stunning, smart and funny art gallery manager, "Helen" (Heather Jurgenson). The film tracks their relationships with each other and with the people in their lives - family, friends, co-workers.
The story could easily have sunk to the level of a zany, fluffy, sex comedy or, perhaps, strived to be a "message" drama. It does neither. What makes it wonderful is that all the characters have whole lives which they live in confusion and compassion, pathos and passion. Superficially, they are familiar Manhattan, affluent stereotypes. In reality, they have all the longings and frailties - and strengths - of people everywhere. The character development is real and affecting without being cloy, cynicism is at a minimum. Helen and Jessica haven't stepped out of a Woody Allen take on Manhattan life.
Is Jessica really coming out for life as a lesbian or is she trolling in unfamiliar waters out of desperation for a friendship that includes intimacy? Has Helen given up myriad lovers of both sexes to settle into a domesticated gay relationship? Are the answers there? Should they be?
If a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for portraying the Jewish mother-in-law is ever awarded Tovah Feldshuh will get it. In this film she hovers dangerously close to a familiar caricature while projecting a warmth and wisdom deeper than the conventional portrait of the hectoring, always worried Jewish mom. The opening scene at a Day of Atonement synagogue service is priceless.
"Kissing Jessica Stein" is an Indie production based on the two leading actresses' collaboration in writing "Lipstick," their 1997 play. These are two very smart and insightful women: I hope more comes from their fertile and caring understanding of human, not just female but human, needs.
This film is very New York with scenes from a number of neighborhoods. I have mixed feelings about the post-11 September premiere decision to delete shots of the World Trade Center and replace them with the midtown skyline. A reviewer noted that audiences at the premiere were distracted by the WTC-dominated panoramas.
In a largely full theater with a number of clearly lesbian couples along with many more single people and (probably) heterosexual couples it was really nice to be part of an audience that burst into frequent laughter not based on sexual orientation but rather together as people enjoying a really clever, funny-and-serious, good film.
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