Film defies categorization

Movie: Filmmakers urge viewers to see `Stein' as romantic tale.

April 03, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- If there's one fate Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt wish for Kissing Jessica Stein, a movie they not only wrote but also star in, it's that people resist the need to pigeonhole it.

Yes, it's a film about a sexual relationship between two women, but it's not a gay film. Yes, it's got all the trappings of a low-budget flick that will appeal to a niche audience, but it's not an art-house movie. And yes, it's a film that asks whether sexual inclination is a product of one's biology or one's upbringing, but it doesn't provide any answers.

"A lot of people say, `Is it a straight movie? Is it a gay movie?' Hey, it's a movie," says Westfeldt. "We just wanted to make a romantic comedy that anyone could identify with. We wanted it to be inclusive, to have the movie be something where people might forget that they're looking at two women."

Here at Washington's fashionably hip Hotel Rouge, the latest stop on a press tour that has left both women feeling exhausted (by the pace) and gratified (for all the interest their little film has engendered), Westfeldt and Juergensen know the drill.

They know there are going to be questions about their own sexual preferences, about whether the characters in Jessica Stein are autobiographical, about the type of audience they expect for their film. They finish each other's sentences, are unfailingly polite, and keep reiterating that they're not out to step on toes, or promote any one lifestyle over another. They just wanted to make a terrific film, one that went beyond the stereotypical women's roles both had encountered all-too-often.

Their script began as a revue that they wrote and performed in New York after meeting five years ago in an actor's workshop. Called Lipschtick, the revue featured Jeurgensen and Westfeldt playing various women all struggling with the dating scene.

"We were playing women who were dating men, but we were playing all different types of women," says Juergensen, a native if Brooklyn who, like Westfeldt, ad- mits only to being in her early 30s. "We were playing women who were insecure, women who were very promiscuous ... "

Chimes in Westfeldt: "We had the ditz, the black woman, the Rosie Perez character, the old Jewish grandmother."

"But when it was all over," Juergensen continues, "audiences were always like, `bring back the two [gay] women, we want to see the women.'"

Westfeldt picks up the conversation: "People were like, `all these bad dates we were talking about, all these problems we were examining - which was basically how men and women don't understand one another - it was like that was a prelude to this scene between the two women.'"

The two actors figured they were on to something, and continually honed their act. "We stay up all night," says Westfeldt, "debating what was in the writing, what worked, what didn't work, what was interesting."

The result was a script about two women who aren't necessarily gay, but who definitely find the soul mates they've been looking for in each other, rather than in the succession of men with whom they've been having relationships.

Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) has endured a succession of bad dates with men who consistently meet her worst expectations. Then one day, while perusing the singles ads, she sees one that describes precisely the person she wants. The problem is, it appears in the women-looking-for-women section.

Not exactly undaunted, but intrigued enough to give things a try, Jessica answers the ad and meets Helen Cooper, a "funky downtown hipster" (in the words of the film's press materials) who wins her mind by using the word "marinating" in a sentence." (Jessica's a stickler for using words properly). The two ease their way into a relationship that gradually becomes sexual. But will it become permanent? Are Jessica and Helen gay, or just lonely?

Juergensen and Westfeldt say that while their script isn't exactly autobiographical - both are involved in long-term relationships with men - it was inspired by events in their lives and those of women they've known over the years.

"We both have had amazingly close female friendships," says Westfeldt, whose previous acting credits include supporting roles on a pair of sitcoms (including ABC's A Guy, a Girl and a Pizza Place) that deservedly vanished without a trace. "I don't think we know anyone who doesn't say at one point, `This is so much better than any date I've had, this is just like a marriage - except for this one nagging realm. In every other way, it's utterly satisfying and tender and loving and sensitive and caring, all that stuff. It's just not with a man.'"

But even more, they say, their collaboration was inspired by a desire for roles with some substance to them.

While they were working on the script, "I was in the middle of my first television show in Hollywood," says Westfeldt, "where I was playing the sweet/Midwestern/ young/kindergarten teacher/girlfriend who just loves the guy and is just there for him, but keeps messing up.

"And then the next TV series I go to, I was the graduate student-slash-nanny who's just there for the guy, just sweet and cool. I mean, it's hard to get interesting parts. It's hard to get parts that are more than just fools-for-a-guy, or more than just that one-dimensional lovely nice-person part."

Jeurgensen, whose resume includes a writing credit on the 2001 reunion movie for the TV series The Facts of Life, hopes the film's gentle spirit and soft edge widens its appeal beyond that of most films with gay themes. Kissing Jessica Stein is not a film about being gay; it's a film about being loved.

"At the end of the day, we really felt the film was about tolerance and acceptance of anybody's path," she says. "It's about anyone's journey to find themselves, to find happiness, to find love in this life."

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