Assessing, finessing the romantic comedy

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
Jennifer Westfeldt and Chris Messina star in the romantic comedy "Ira & Abby," showing Saturday in the U.S. Comedy Art's Festival Film Program. Westfeldt also wrote the film's screenplay. (Courtesy U.S. Comedy Arts Festival)

ASPEN Don’t look for Jennifer Westfeldt in the audience at the local cinema, coohing and aahing over the latest romantic misadventures as depicted by Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey. Westfeldt is no fan of the romantic comedy in its current state.”It’s awful usually. It’s brutal, right?” she said. “The form is just a disaster right now. I see the studio movies now, and they’re so pat.”So instead of sitting through the latest steaming pile starring Kate Hudson and Hugh Grant, Westfeldt spends her time doing her part to refresh the genre. Westfeldt co-wrote and starred in 2001’s charming “Kissing Jessica Stein,” whose lesbian themes were only the beginning of its distinguishing characteristics. The film, co-written by and co-starring Heather Juergensen, made observations that echoed real-world dating situations, and actual life in contemporary Manhattan.Westfeldt returns with the similarly solid, equally quirky “Ira & Abby,” which shows Saturday (2:45 p.m., Isis Theatre) in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s Film Program. (It also had a screening on Thursday.) “Ira & Abby” stars Westfeldt as Abby Willoughby, a bizarrely spontaneous free spirit who informs the neurotic Ira (Chris Messina) that the two will be married, moments after their first meeting. For all of the levity in her personality, however, Abby is weighted down by a past that brings down the newlyweds, and brings up issues of fidelity, honesty and psychology. They may be the standard stuff of romantic comedies, but as in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” though to a slightly lesser extent, “Ira & Abby” raises the bar on the humor and the love story.The key component for Westfeldt is keeping in mind that romance has another side than the comic. She may not think much of recent romantic comedies, but she flashes back to an earlier film – Billy Wilder’s 1960 gem “The Apartment,” starring Jack Lemmon as a schemer using his bachelor pad to lift himself up the corporate ladder – as a model.”It has great screwball comedy, but patches of real dark stuff,” said Westfeldt, by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “There’s such complexity in the tone, and I think that’s what’s been left out. The ones that dare to be difficult and painful are the ones that interest me.” Westfeldt points out that there have been recent films she found worthy: “As Good As It Gets,” “Rushmore” and “Jerry Maguire.”The 36-year-old Westfeldt hasn’t attained Wilder-type status yet. But she believes she has a grasp on the elements to approach it.

Both “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Ira & Abby,” she observes, “have a buoyancy and a lightness – but at their core there are some painful questions. Both are about somebody stepping outside their comfort zones, taking a leap of faith, and being surprised by the outcome. “We’re all stuck in our own ways that are very narrow. It’s tough for people to change their ways – but both films ask: What if you did?”Westfeldt didn’t set out to make romantic comedies, not even the good kind. A participant in school plays since she was in fourth grade, she was looking at the stage, and studied acting at Yale, in her native Connecticut.”I always just wanted a career in Broadway, doing Chekhov and Shakespeare,” she said. “That was the dream; I didn’t think about movies or TV.”But as an actress, Westfeldt took what she could get, even if it was a part in the sitcom “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.” When the series had a rescheduling, in the fall of 1997, Westfeldt found herself with two months to kill. She spent them with Heather Juergensen, with whom she had written scenes about dating hell at a workshop for actors and writers, the previous year. Together the two wrote the play “Lipschtick,” which had a successful run in a small New York theater, and was the basis for “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Made for an estimated $1 million, the film took in over $7 million in theaters (both numbers according to, and is having continued life on cable TV.The success of the film has been followed by success elsewhere. Westfeldt starred recently on Broadway in a revival of “Wonderful Town,” and earned a Tony Award nomination for her work. She is also featured as a “very reluctant, young mother-to-be” in the new sitcom “Notes From the Underbelly.”Down the road, Westfeldt might make further inroads in the genre she has such distaste for. Noting that she’s not a born writer, she’s not sure if she has the skills to create a dramatic role for herself that she would care to embody.”I’m good in this genre,” she said. “I’ve written these to have more interesting roles to play. I wouldn’t know how to write a thriller. This is the most natural thing for me to write, drawing on my life.”

Beyond the writing, what has made “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Ira & Abby” the films they are is Westfeldt herself. Onscreen, Westfeldt seems plausibly goofy, neurotic and dreamy. A fan of early Woody Allen films, she seems, especially in “Ira & Abby,” to be channeling Diane Keaton’s eccentricity one moment, and Mia Farrow’s awkward introspection the next. The main characters in “Ira & Abby” meet in the Manhattan gym where Abby works – sort of – as a salesperson. Abby comes onto Ira, and the two are off on the early, happy stages of their whirlwind romance. The scene borders on surrealism, but Westfeldt says it draws on her life, from the setting to the character.”My first job in New York was at that very gym,” she said. “I was the worst salesperson. It’s this hilarious gym, like the ‘Cheers’ bar – no one comes for the exercise. It’s all the social scene; half the machines are broken. I’d make friends with all the people I was supposed to be signing up.”I’m fast friends with people, and overextend myself in that way.”Also showingAlso showing this weekend in the USCAF’s Film Program: “Colour Me Kubrick” (Friday, 3:45 p.m., Isis), starring John Malkovich as a real-life Stanley Kubrick impersonator; “Delirious” (Friday, 3:15 p.m., Isis), a celeb vs. paparazzi satire starring Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt ; “Waitress” (Friday, 5 p.m., Wheeler Opera House), directed by and featuring the late Adrienne Shelly; and “Rocket Science” (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Wheeler), the feature debut by Jeffrey Blitz, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Spellbound.”Special film presentations include: the works-in-progress “The Comebacks” (Friday, 1:15 p.m., Isis) and “Heckler” (Saturday, 3 p.m., Isis); the classic comedy “Lonesome” (Friday, 3 p.m., Wheeler), with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra; and a collection of Chuck Jones Looney Tunes shorts (Friday, noon, at The Tent; and Saturday, 10:15 a.m., Isis), presented by Telluride Film Festival co-founders Stella & Bill Pence.

For a full schedule of USCAF film events, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is