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Lesbian Love Story or Heterosexual Propaganda?


by Dorothy W. Dumont


            Anyone who considers themselves erudite in lesbian cinema owns at least two copies of the crossover indie flick Kissing Jessica Stein, a romantic comedy about a woman who finds love through an articulately rendered personals ad in the Village Voice. Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt), the movie’s sexually experimental hero, is a neurotic Jewish copy editor and an in-the-closet artist who’s fed up with dating the illiterate, frugal, and otherwise homosexual men she is constantly being set up with.


            Just as she’s hit her ultimate low Stein overhears an eloquently worded personals ad quoting Rilke, only to find its listing under women seeking women. In an attempt to reinvent herself, Stein answers the ad and meets Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen), a promiscuous art director who’s just as inexperienced and as desperate to find love as she is. Together they learn the ins and outs of lesbian love which include uncomfortable yet ultimately charming bouts with foreplay, witty attempts at suavity, and delightful discussions on sexual accessories. With the help of quirky characters like Stein’s overprotective mother (Tovah Feldshuh) and lovesick college boyfriend/boss (Scott Cohen), reality ensues in this heart warming, bi-curious comedy.


            For all hetero purposes the review could end here; a charming situational picture with a love story for the women and some hot girl on girl action for their boyfriends who got dragged along. Except for one small measure: this is supposed to be a lesbian’s movie! With just a brief synopsis no reader could anticipate the ultimately unsatisfying and tragically homophobic conclusion of Kissing Jessica Stein where the girls fall out of love and, after a few heartless attempts to become “more gay,” Jessica recedes back into her small, prosaic closet, eventually ending up with a man.


            Now this kind of thing may seem perfectly acceptable for the elderly couple who saw this flick on a whim after reading reviews that call Stein, “the female Woody Allen,” but lesbians on the other head are leaving the theatres disgruntled and offended--what else is new. To us this kind of movie screams one word: Propaganda.


            Take for example, the screamingly hot scene where Jessie and her new gal pal finally hook up for the first time. After a titillating night of under-the-table foreplay at a bar, the girl’s can barely make it through the door without ripping each other’s clothes off. Then, right as they’re rounding second base and all of us are crossing our legs just a bit too tight, one of Helen’s other lovers, a man, knocks on the door and totally ruins the mood. Not only that, but by the end of the scene, he’s settling in with Helen and Jessica is on her way out. Thus the message seems to be, a good girl has her cake but then throws it up in the bathroom, too.


            Yet another nipple hardening moment arises when Jess and Hel get roped into a little sleepover at the family home after a sunny Shabbat meal turns into a torrential downpour. Passions flair when the two girls are crowded Jessica’s childhood room to share a bed. Then, after some hesitation, Jessica (finally) steps up to the plate and asserts her sexuality once and for all, giving Helen the night she’s been waiting for, and all the while we’re thinking “hell ya,” but how come it took her so long? Is it only now that Jess has overcome her fear of the same sex?


            Then of course, there is that picturesque scene at the wedding party, where Jessica’s boss (Scott Cohen) takes Jessica to the roof, professes his undying love to her and then plants a wet one on her lips, even though we’ve spent the last hour watching Helen beg to be Jessica’s date. One would think, at this point, Jess might start exerting some of those man-hating genes and toss this sceazy basterd over the railing, but instead straighty just bats her eyelashes and kisses back. It isn’t hard to tell which gender’s got the upper hand in this film.


            Worst of all though is the tear-jerking moment when Jessica finally confesses to her mother that she’s with a woman. What is perhaps, the most poignant ingredient in the film is invariably squashed by the disappointing ending whether Jessica is neither gay nor straight, just a really indecisive broad with a really confused fan club. Could it be that all these emotional growing pains (which so many of us have really had to deal with) are just the product of some expertly executed plot twist which adds to the movie’s stamina?


            After being sited as “one of the best same-sex romances around,” Kissing Jessica Stein hardly lives up to its intentions. On the contrary, Stein seems to be teaching young homos how easy it is to jump right back into the closet as soon as the going gets tough. Comparable to movies like Refer Madness, this film takes a topic so frequently misunderstood and puts it in the forefront for scrutiny and ridicule only to end up discounting it completely by implying that it can be stopped.


            Like other films of its kind, Stein may illustrate some of the finer points of living as a lesbian, initially a factor in developing a homosexual audience, but just as the queers in the back of the theatre begin to weep at the movie’s ‘truth,’ it’s plot takes a turn for the worst. This movie intends suck us in, tempting us to relate, only to have our hopes bashed as the credits role.


            If we weren’t positive that the writers of this controversial picture were women, one might even go as far as to assume that the government, working hand in hand with the Christian Coalition, secretly engineered such a film to dissuade more of us from coming out, lest we face the consequences of our lovers becoming has-beians.


            Kissing Jessica Stein is a picture that presents every lesbian’s nightmare under the guise of an intellectually stimulating, colorful comedy. It is as much a threat to the gay community as a tutorial to the straight community; a film that announces loudly to its audience in Chelsea and the Village “Beware” and to the rest of cookie cutter America “There is hope for you yet.” And perhaps the worst part of all is, no matter what orientation you may be, you just keep coming back to the film because the sex scenes are so ‘damn hot.

c. 2004 Acidemic Media Group

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244