Project Valentine, Day 16: Kissing Jessica Stein


Tonight is the end of the Dude, That's So Gay block of movies, and I'm closing it up with one recommended by my friend Rachel.  Actually, I'd originally planned to fill this spot with another movie that I had picked at semi-random from Netflix's Gay & Lesbian romances section.  It doesn't matter what it was.  (OK, it was Personal Best, starring Mariel Hemingway.  I have no excuse, except that I wanted to see Mariel Hemingway young and naked.)  But Rachel lobbied so passionately for Kissing Jessica Stein that I called an audible and changed the lineup.  I'm glad I did.  I enjoyed this movie much more than I think I would have enjoyed a movie about the American women's track team that had to miss the 1980 Olympics because of the US boycott.  (I was too young to remember that, but I do remember the USSR boycotting the LA games four years later.  Way to act like little bitches, Olympic Committees of both nations!)

Kissing Jessica Stein opens with a scene of Jessica in Temple with her parents and grandmother on Yom Kippur, being hounded by her mother about being in her late 20s and not married.  Already, I loved this movie.  The opening scene tells you almost everything you need to know about her, without coming across as clumsy exposition.  Jessica goes on a series of terrible dates that her mother sets up for her; at a dinner party with friends, she regales them with stories of how awful each date was until Josh (a former boyfriend and current co-worker) tells her that the reason she doesn't find love is that she isn't open to it.  This makes Jessica examine herself, and when a personal ad quoting one of her favorite poets shows up in the newspaper she works at, she answers it.  The catch?  The ad was in the "women seeking women" section.

The ad was placed by Helen, a bisexual art gallery curator who is tired of tawdry relationships with men.  The two meet for drinks and they click, despite Jessica's uncertainty and neuroses.  Their relationship grows stronger, but Jessica still struggles to figure out how to let people in her life know about what she and Helen have, and how to become more expressive in their sex life.  A conversation between Jessica and her mother gives her the confidence to attend her brother's wedding with Helen as her date, and the two women move in together soon after.

I don't really want to spoil the ending for you, but one of my main impressions from the movie stems from its ending, so here goes.  Jessica and Helen fall into a rut; Helen wants much more sex in their relationship and feels that they have become nothing more than best friends and roommates, but Jessica is happy with how things are.  They break up.  The movie's final scenes show Jessica running into Josh at a bookstore and possibly rekindling their relationship, Helen waking in the arms of her new girlfriend, and the two women meeting at a cafe and talking like friends.

Really, it's a sweet ending, but I do have a problem with it.  The whole movie up to this point has been about Jessica's emotional journey towards accepting herself and letting another person in.  The end basically hits the reset button on everything that's just happened.  OK, that's not entirely true, but that's how it felt.  I know that sexual orientation can be a fluid thing, and that people experiment at different times of their lives, but it felt like a little bit like a cheat here, you know?  "Yes, the pretty girl is playing at having a girlfriend for a while, but don't worry - she'll be back!"

That said, the character does have some growth.  By the end, she's learned to slow down, embrace new things, and let people in.  She and Helen both have an important new friendship.  I guess that I just wanted this movie to have a happily-ever-after for them, because both of the female leads were really appealing performers, and were cute together.

Other things I liked... Jon Hamm is in this movie!  Turns out that he's been involved with the actress who plays Jessica since the late '90s.  His role is blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but it's still fun seeing him show up.  In Helen and Jessica's first meeting, Helen talks about how she has one boyfriend who she calls when she's hungry, one who she calls when she's horny, etc.  Jessica's response?  "Who do you call when you get sick?"  I love it - even in the 2000's, nice Jewish girls know to look for a doctor.  On that note, I also loved the Jewish grandmothers at the wedding, planning out Jessica and Helen's life for them.

The one thing I couldn't get past?  This movie was set in NYC in 2002, and it shows two young people using newspaper personals.  That was so out of place, that it actually took me a second to remember, "Oh yeah, people used to pay to have personal ads printed in the paper.  Strange..."  I mean, I've been married since 2002, and even I had used Internet personals before the turn of the century.

OK, despite my nitpicks, I really liked this movie.  It was cute without being cutesy, and sweet without being saccharine.  There were some great laughs, and I really cared about what would happen to these two girls.

RATING - I give this one five bowls of chicken noodle soup out of five.

LESSON - If you're in a relationship, go all in or don't bother.

And that's it for Dude, That's So Gay!  I wasn't sure what the reaction would be like over these last few days, so I thank you for joining me in a quest to show that love is love.  Tomorrow starts four days of Julia Roberts movies, but until then I leave you with this...


Anonymous said...

Great review of an excellent movie, Danny! I saw it when it was first released and really liked it. Your movie write-ups have been a lot of fun to read. The "Twilight" reviews were hilarious! I definitely am interested in hearing your thoughts about the Julia Roberts movies (and am feeling grateful that I don't have to watch them myself! ;).

- April

Will Meekin said...

Fun fact: writer/star Jennifer Westfeldt's boyfriend is...John Hamm.

Anyway, I've seen a couple of her movies and there's something about them that takes me out of them. A plainness of production and static camera maybe? They feel better suited to the theater? It's funny, this movie was made in 2001 but it feels like an indie joint from the hand-crafted 90s. And maybe it felt a little avante garde because it came out in 2001 just before the cultural tsunami of gay tolerance crashed ashore in 2003 with "Queer Eye."


Danny said...

I think I mentioned that in the review, but I'll still give you credit for the assist.

Agreed on both of those points. It felt like something that would have come out when we were in college. Watching it and "2 Girls in Love," I found myself thinking that they were probably both a lot more edgy when they came out, but they're both sort of products of their time now. (Kind of like what you said in your comment about 9 1/2 Weeks.) I imagine I'd feel the same way if I watched "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Will Meekin said...

Busted. "Review skimmer!" Just this once, though.


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