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Wednesday December 7th

Westfeldt Emerges as New Lesbian Heroine, Spokeswoman For Cosmopolitan Dating

The dime-store independent film "Kissing Jessica Stein" makes a blatant move on heterosexual assumptions.


4 Stars

In the same throbbing vein of "Chasing Amy" and TV's "Will and Grace," "Kissing Jessica Stein" smears the already blurred line between hetero and homo. Writing team Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, who also star in the film, explore the feasibility and success of homosexuality as an "option" other than an inborn trait.

Single, intellectual (and hot)Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) works as a copy editor at the New York Chronicle. And her personality fits her job -- she is a meticulous, critical and conservative perfectionist. Likewise, her heterosexual dating life consists of finding the faults in her comically faulty suitors, who are, as Stein complains, either "not funny or not smart, or not funny and not smart." Not since "Annie Hall" have the love lives of cosmopolitan intellectuals been so artfully and comically tackled.

But Woody Allen and Diane Keaton this film is not.

Stein happens upon a "female seeking female" ad in The Village Voice that includes a quote from the poet Rilke. A phone call leads to Helen Cooper (Juergensen), a well-sexed art gallery director who's becoming "bi-curious," shall we say, even though her venture into lesbianism is more of an experiment than an act of true self or lonely desperation.

A relationship begins and Stein predictably approaches sex and love with her typical organization, which includes manuals, pamphlets and a day-by-day timeline, all the while savagely teasing Cooper with her slow sexual progression and systematic libido.

Eventually, Stein does open up and both are happier together than with any previous man. Months pass and the issues of lesbian love versus female friendship are caught on celluloid. Jessica, who remains conservative and private, is forced to grapple with friends and family members who constantly beg to know, "Who's the guy?" Tovah Feldshuh has several warm moments as Jessica's Jewish mother, and Scott Cohen compliments Westfeldt well as her present boss and former lover.

As could be gathered from the film's scant publicity, "Kissing Jessica Stein" is a dime-store indie film. But a lack of financial backing means fewer studio restrictions, giving filmmakers the ability to create delicate, solemn moments as well as sincere, smart comedy. The innovative camera work employed by director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld also illustrates the benefits of indie auteurism. He adds more emotion to over-the-shoulder dialogue shots by often using hand-held cameras (see "Traffic") and captures engaging, personal visuals of New York only possible without a large crew in tow.

Technique aside, the heart of the film lies in the questions that eventually surface. Can a straight person choose to be gay and be happy? Can someone truly be bisexual? Can two gay people "just be friends" after a breakup?

The film raises these questions and doesn't necessarily answer them but leaves the viewer pondering them while walking up the aisle. Nevertheless, it provides a refreshing, comedic and contemporary look at homosexuality and relationships that is long overdue.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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