Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. US 2001. 96mins

Halfway into the gender-bending romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, the 28-year-old, eponymous heroine describes herself as "a Jewish Sandra Dee". A more apt comparison might be Annie Hall, whose physical mannerisms and stammering speech patterns actress/writer Jennifer Westfeldt seems to have appropriated for her character. So ardent are her efforts, however, that the character proves more annoying than endearing. The same could be said for the film as a whole. While aiming for a kind of zany big-screen charm, it never rises above the mildly amusing level of a television sitcom. Given its New York setting and its neurotic, ethnic characters, the film should play better in big US urban areas when it opens on March 15. Even then it won't make any great inroads at the box office, although commercial prospects look slightly better in video. Overseas prospects look similarly limited due to its lack of a well-known cast.

Jessica works as a copy editor at a Manhattan magazine. Although attractive and highly intelligent, she is also compulsively self-absorbed, insensitive to others and outspoken to a fault. A perfectionist who is quick to spot shortcomings in others but blind to her own foibles, she is, unsurprisingly, romantically unattached, a situation which distresses her stereotypically pushy Jewish mother (Feldshuh) as much as it does Jessica.

A personal ad in the newspaper intrigues her enough to respond, even though the writer turns out to be a "woman seeking woman". Like Jessica, Helen (Juergensen, who co-wrote the script with Westfeldt from their play Lipschtick) has been disappointed with the calibre of men she has been meeting and she is willing to try something new. A lot more willing, perhaps, than Jessica, whose tentative move into lesbianism accounts for much of the film's intended humour. Always lurking in the background, however, is Josh (Cohen), Jessica's boss and one-time boyfriend. It doesn't take a fortune teller to figure out that these two are meant for each other: the question is whether Jessica will ever realise it.

You don't have to be Jewish to both enjoy and be offended by this film, which milks laughs from some obvious situations, yet also manages to get in a few original and clever bits of dialogue, as well as one genuinely moving scene between Jessica and her mother late in the picture. Although both Jessica and Helen seem semi-inspired by the screwball comedy heroines of the 1930s and 1940s, they are never able to shake the feeling that they are characters in a TV sitcom. And Westfeldt's perhaps unintentional attempt to channel Annie Hall proves terribly distracting. Still, the film makes some worthwhile points about taking risks, whether in love or, more broadly, in life. Sometimes, success lies in the mere willingness to make the leap, regardless of how it turns out in the end.

Pro co: Eden Wurmfeld Films, Brad Zions Films, Cineric Inc, Michael Alden Productions
US dist: Fox Searchlight
Int'l dist:
20th Century Fox International
Prods: Eden Wurmfeld, Brad Zions
Heather Juergensen, Jennifer Westfeldt
Lawrence Sher
Prod des: Charlotte Bourke
Ed: Kristy Jacobs Maslin, Greg Tillman
Marcelo Zarvos
Main cast:
Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh, Scott Cohen