I don't know which cultural phenomenon is more responsible for the inordinate attention afforded "Kissing Jessica Stein:" the bankability of lesbian chic or the mainstreaming of the alt-cinema audience. Maybe it's both. This indie-lite romance repackages sexual and ethnic stereotypes that it treats like the lost chord of comedy. Is there anyone out there who still chuckles when chicken soup is referred to as "Jewish penicillin?" There must be: "Stein" has been an audience favorite at film festivals, and studio Fox Searchlight is pushing it hard.
Written by co-stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Jurgensen, this puffball of a picture posits same-sex experimentation as the cure for the single girl's dating malaise. Jessica (Westfeldt), an employee of the fictional New York Tribune, is crippled by feelings of alienation from her society in general and mankind in particular. How else is a woman supposed to react when she's confronted by illiterate clowns who refer to themselves with malapropisms like "self-defecating?"
Meanwhile, Helen Cooper (Jurgensen), the assistant director of a too-hip art gallery, tires of juggling the fellas in her own life and places a personal ad in an alternative newsweekly in search of a female companion. Jessica responds to the ad, and the two are off on a fumbling courtship that's marked by reticence on Jessica's part and impatient free-spiritedness on Helen's.
"It's like this surreal episode," Jessica assesses. By "episode," she appears to acknowledge that the film is a glorified installment of "Ally McBeal." All the bases are covered, from the Sapphic titillation to the working-girl angst to the deification of Barry White. And that's not counting Westfeldt's performance: Her every mannerism and vocal inflection suggest Calista Flockhart with improved access to a baked-potato bar.
Jurgensen shows a bit more verve as Helen, but neither leading lady has the pizzazz to carry a picture. The plot is a stitched-together series of set pieces with comedic potential the movie doesn't fully exploit. In a cute send-up of little-girl sleepovers, Jessica and Helen are made to share a bedroom in the Stein family home, but neither the writers nor director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld do much of anything with that powder-keg setup. Better is a vignette in which Helen prods a couple of bar guys to explain the male fascination with lesbian sex. Unseen, she fondles Jessica's leg under the table.
Defying convention, the movie actually improves in its latter stages. The character of Jessica's mother (Tovah Feldshuh), for instance, is allowed to grow beyond her initial Jewish-matron clichés. We should probably be thankful, though, that Westfeldt and Jurgensen have limited time for depth, lest we be forced to examine fully their film's more dangerous implications. In whatever parallel universe Jessica and Helen inhabit, coming out of the closet entails little to no risk of persecution. And the film's basic precept -- that sexual preference can be donned and doffed like a jacket -- is fuel for every right-winger's "reconditioning" fantasy. Fun's fun, but "Kissing Jessica Stein" should be a little more careful about who it ends up in bed with.