Switching teams 

Kissing Jessica Stein a lame excuse for an indie film

Indies used to distinguish themselves from Hollywood schlock with their meandering, quirky storylines, offbeat personalities, a yen for throwing conventionality to the lions and performances by edgy, diamond-in-the-rough actors. Such features tended to make Hollywood look self-important and out-of-touch by comparison. How times have changed.

Now indies show their allegiance to Hollywood by using the exact same marketing technique of High Concept. The shill in this new brand of indie is front and center: a gimmick meant to pass for "quirky" but having more in common with the flat-footed salesmanship of Hollywood. And indie actors are no longer the Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, James LeGros offbeat thespians of old. Today's indie actor more often looks like a cheaper knock-off of an already existing brand image -- a quirky Meg Ryan or lovable Tom Hanks cranked out on a smaller budget.

Kissing Jessica Stein is one such high concept film that plays with the "edgy" subject matter of lesbianism, not out of any particular interest in that predilection, but because it's sexy and out there -- just the kind of terms that sound good lobbed off the walls of a pitch room.

A film about two single girls who decide to go gay rather than put up with the lame men on the Manhattan dating scene, Kissing Jessica Stein suggests you can jump in and out of sexual orientation as casually as you would, say, decide between the house salad and the Caesar.

Doing the neurotic singleton routine is Jennifer Westfeldt, straight out of Lisa Kudrowville as the bland Jessica Stein. The typical picky, relationship-starved city bachelorette, Jessica is shown in an early montage undergoing the trial by fire -- the blind date -- that makes the dating scene look like the self-involved single gal's own personal Inquisition. In a succession of vignettes we watch Jessica interviewing nightmarish dates ranging from smarmy lounge lizards to cheapskates to closet cases.

In a fit of pique, Jessica decides to just chuck the whole hetero-dating racket and answer a personal ad placed by another horny New York babe, Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen). A funky, edgy Chelsea art gallery manager (art insiders will get a genuine chuckle out of the beyond-awful work hanging in Helen's "hip" gallery), Helen is getting in touch with her own Sapphic side.

Unlike the city's men, with whom they have nothing in common, Jessica and Helen immediately bond over the girly aphrodisiacs of lipstick brands, therapists and shoes. As if conceding the terrors of finding a husband in New York City, friends and family prove surprisingly accepting of the union. Jessica's massively pregnant friend Joan (Jackie Hoffman, an earthy, hilarious Fran Lebowitz-on-amphetamines) is all about vicariously living through Jessica's sex life, and even Jessica's conservative Jewish Scarsdale mother gives a nod of weeping approval. The only openly resistant party poopers are Helen's queeny gay friends who think she's a sexual dilettante.

A modern take on the Preston Sturges comedy of errors, Kissing Jessica Stein has some memorably sharp, funny writing and the occasional effective emotional moment, as when Jessica's suburban mom (Tovah Feldshuh) reveals a surprisingly liberated, accepting side -- elements that redeem some of the film's conventionality.

Rather than a truly girl-friendly, head-nodding, "right on sista!" kind of project, Kissing Jessica Stein feels for the most part like yet another masochistic single girl flick. In this case, it's directed by a fella, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who's tantalized by the hook of cute lesbians getting it on.

Had the leads and the overall pacing matched some of the freshness of the writing, Kissing Jessica Stein might have lifted itself out of the ranks of the routine. Despite the film's overheated boast of being "a modern romantic comedy that breaks all the rules," Kissing Jessica Stein leaves our expectations of the lightweight indie comedy pretty much unshaken.



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