Thanks to Woody Allen, there's a kind of music - jaunty, jubilant, jazzy - that just screams New York Romantic Comedy. Kissing Jessica Stein is crammed full of such numbers, their pleasantly insistent buzzing ensuring that Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's movie practically doffs its cap to Woody's warmer moments.
The novelty here is that the mismatched couple are not only two women, but two previously straight women - chronically picky journalist Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) and adventurous art dealer Helen (Heather Juergensen). They meet up via Helen's pretentious wanted ad, and the film's funniest moments show the tortuous path that the nervous would-be lesbians take to the bedroom. It's a plot that could either be offensive (titillating temporary lesbians!) or drearily political in the wrong hands, but is here deftly handled, with a particularly well-judged ending.
Admittedly, most of the settings and situations are ones we've seen before - the extended Jewish family with the domineering mother, the snotty contemporary art gallery, multiple failed dates - but they all feel drawn from life rather than nicked from other movies. All, that is, apart from the scenes in Jessica's workplace, which is a fantasy version of a newspaper office where terribly clever people do nothing but debate how to use fancy words.
A cheaply made movie with no flash effects or lush production values to distract from the filmmaking basics, Kissing Jessica Stein has to rely on old-fashioned qualities: script and performance. Both are excellent. Quotable lines are sprinkled throughout ("I was surprised to find that lesbians accessorise") and writers/ stars Juergensen and Westfeldt (who has more than a touch of Lisa Kudrow to her) are both likable and convincing.
Recent Manhattan-set duds Kate&Leopold and Sidewalks Of New York have demonstrated how making a good romantic comedy takes more than an unlikely couple meeting in amusing circumstances followed by some mildly twisty plotting. Kissing Jessica Stein shows how it should be done: it feels both familiar and fresh. Hugely enjoyable.