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*Kissing Jessica Stein (R)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Smart, funny and stylishly directed, Kissing Jessica Stein is a terrific romantic comedy, almost completely devoid of the schmaltz and insipid characters the genre often employs. What's more, it's a story of two girls falling in love that successfully avoids the pitfalls of political preachiness and lesbian political correctness. Kissing Jessica Stein succeeds as a same-sex romance for a mainstream audience -- a rarity in cinema.

Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, who wrote the screenplay based on their play Lipstick, co-star as Jessica and Helen, modern working girls in New York City. Jessica's a bookish, neurotic copy editor who can't find a decent guy and Helen's a siren, director of a SoHo gallery, who wants to experiment sexually. When Helen places a personal ad in Jessica's newspaper, employing a Rilke quote that's one of Jess's favorites, Jessica reluctantly responds and even more reluctantly shows up for a first date. After a hilarious series of dates where Jessica insists they take it slow and just get used to kissing, they finally consummate the relationship. What follows are classic adjustment scenes where Jessica tells her mother (Tovah Feldshuh), her nosy co-worker Joan (Jackie Hoffman) and her former boyfriend/boss Josh (Scott Cohen) that she's in love with Helen.

The screenplay falters in the end, making the film appear as if the writers just couldn't figure out how to complete it. But bright, clever camera work, great New York street scenes, strong acting and sparkling dialogue raise it far above average for the first 80 minutes.

The supporting roles are well developed, especially Tovah Feldshuh as Jessica's mom. In one memorable scene, she gently tries to find out why her daughter is so sad. The two sit close together on a porch rocker. Jessica can't bring herself to speak Helen's name, but her mother kindly picks up the slack. "I think she's a very nice girl," she says, offering the unconditional approval her daughter needs.

What's most cunning about the script and the film is the dance around the boundaries that define friendship, love and romance. Jessica and Helen work both as friend girls and girlfriends. The easy banter between the two lead actresses is a pleasure to watch, and while you're rooting for the romance to blossom, you're also wondering if it'll screw up the friendship. It would be unfair to reveal what happens except to say that in Kissing Jessica Stein, same-sex romance faces the same hurdles and complications as heterosexual romance.

A great date film, good cinematherapy with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, Kissing Jessica Stein's a fresh treat.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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