Kissing Jessica Stein

While “Kissing Jessica Stein” will be viewed by some as a “lesbian” movie, that unfairly narrows its scope. It addresses issues of sexuality, yes, but it’s also an extremely funny story about dating in the modern world, the pressure to conform to society, and the differences between a friendship and a relationship.

It was written by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, who also are its stars, Helen Cooper and Jessica Stein. Helen runs an art gallery in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and is bored with the dating scene. Jessica is a newspaper copy editor who finds men increasingly tiresome.

Deciding to give lesbianism a try — and guided by her gay friends at the gallery — Helen places a personals ad in the Village Voice. On a whim, Jessica answers it. They hit it off, become friends, and develop a romantic relationship — far too slowly for Helen’s tastes, but only as quickly as Jessica can deal with it.

Jessica, after all, has outside forces to contend with. Her ultra-Jewish mother, Judy (Tovah Feldshuh), is less a mom than a force of nature, powerfully and comically manipulating every element of her surroundings, including Jessica’s life. (This will be a key point later on, when Feldshuh delivers the film’s best emotional moment. If there were any justice, she’d have a Best Supporting Actress nomination.)

Jessica also must deal with Josh Myers (Scott Cohen), who is her boss, ex-boyfriend and an old family friend. He, of all people, would be most skeptical of her new relationship. She hides Helen from everyone.

What is most delightful is that these people are part of the New York intelligentsia, and the witty script is appropriately literate, using its words well without being snobby about it. It is the very picture of “smart” writing. When one of Jessica’s loser dates tries to sound intelligent and winds up creating words like “narcistic” and “endorphmins,” we are expected to empathize with Jessica’s disgust and horror. We are given credit for being at least as smart as the movie is.

Where the film becomes most daring is also, alas, what keeps it from being brilliant. It would be typical (and even acceptable, if not original) to have this be a film about two women discovering their true sexuality. Instead, we are given a surprise. Both of the women started the movie straight, and it’s possible that’s how they’re “meant” to be. This is infinitely more thought-provoking than a simple coming-out story. Unfortunately, the unraveling of that thread is forced into a five-minute space of time. It feels rushed, like the movie was done and they decided to tack on a few twists at the last minute.

But you forgive a misstep like that because of dialogue like this, where Jessica is reminding her mother that every guy she gets set up with is a dud:

JUDY: How was I to know he was a heroin addict?
JESSICA: Wan, pale, track marks…?
JUDY: I thought he had diabetes!

The comedy is at times abrasively sexual, but always funny, and it is particularly well-played by the principal cast. Romantic comedies have needed a dose of intelligence and depth for quite a while, and “Kissing Jessica Stein” has just the thing.

B+ (; R, scattered harsh profanity, some sexuality.)