Monday, March 25, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 115



New film's direction pays tribute to the work of Woody Allen

By Ken Fountain
Senior Staff Writer

If Woody Allen were a 20-something, bi-curious woman, he might make a film like Kissing Jessica Stein.

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Helen (Heather Juergensen), left, and Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) star in the girl-meets-girl romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein.

With its tale of the complicated love lives of loveably neurotic New Yorkers set to a score of jazz standards, the new release recalls Allen's
late-1970s to mid-1980s heyday, when he was turning out funny and poignant fare such as Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters.

Alas, in recent years Allen has increasingly seemed to be merely recycling his greatest hits, all the while incongruously casting much younger
women as his love interests. (Then again, he does the same thing in real life.)

But love among the Manhattan smart set is a theme big enough for a multitude of fresh young filmmakers, and Kissing, opening Wednesday in
Houston, offers the major feature film debuts of co-stars/screenwriters/producers Heather Jeurgensen and Jennifer Westfeldt and director
Charles Herman-Wurmfeld.

Based on Jeurgensen and Westfeldt's off-off-Broadway play Lipschtick, the film spins a tale that is by turns hip, hilarious and touching, yet never
wavers from its just-off-center key.

Westfeldt plays the title character, a straight-laced, career-driven newspaper copy editor with a less-than-satisfying romantic life. While her
mother and grandmother continually try to fix her up with nice Jewish men, she has a string of disastrous dates that play out like an entire
season of Seinfeld.

Her boss and former college flame Josh Meyers, with whom she has a testy friendship, half-jokingly/half-angrily tells her that her problems with
men may not stem from the men themselves, but from herself. More out of frustration than desire, she answers an ad from the "Women Seeking
Women" section of the personals.

She timidly makes a date with Helen Cooper, a decidedly more free-spirited art gallery manager. Unlike Jessica, Helen is completely
unambiguous about her sexual preferences she likes it all. But like Jessica, she too has been in a dating slump. Sensing real longing
underneath Jessica's reticence, Helen comes on strong and virtually wipes out her resistance.

The love scenes between the two women are played for laughs, not titillation, and they are truly hilarious, as the increasingly frustrated Helen
tries to woo Jessica out of her shell. But even after Jessica is able to admit her feelings for Helen, the path to true love remains bumpy.

Not the least of Jessica's problems is her (almost) stereotypically smothering Jewish mother Judy, played by character actress Tovah Felshuh.
Jessica is petrified that her family, especially the iron-willed Judy, her friends or her co-workers will learn her secret.

As Jessica and Helen's relationship plays out, several wrinkles arise that keep the audience guessing about the outcome until the very end.
Characters whom you think you've got pegged suddenly surprise you, but not artificially, since the players are all very well-drawn in the script.

The film's direction and editing are equally smart, matching the hip edginess of the dialogue, and Westfeldt and Juergensen have an appealing
screen chemistry that creates a warm mood throughout the film. All in all, Kissing Jessica Stein feels like a Manhattan for the MTV generation.
Woody should be proud.

Kissing Jessica Stein

**** (out of five stars)

Rated: R

Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heahter Juegensen, Scott Cohen

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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