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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: James C. Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams

While Netflix is undoubtedly the king of streaming services, I'm starting to think that Amazon has the stronger edge in terms of content (and not just because Amazon's films are ones that you can actually see in a theater before revisiting online). Netflix probably wins in terms of quantity, but I also feel like that's why it's going to lose in the long run. Netflix's model is one that seems increasingly built on indiscriminate quantity, on acquiring "content" rather than films so that there can always be something new for an audience in constant demand for more new things. I've seen a few of Netflix's original movies and aside from their documentary selection, which is quite strong, my overall reaction has been that the gems are few and far between and the rest of the features tend to be okay at best, with the occasional film that feels like it barely qualifies as a film. The Incredible Jessica James is one of those, a wisp of a thing that feels more like a long pilot for a series than a proper movie. It's saved somewhat by the starburst of charisma that is Jessica Williams, but it's a pretty forgettable endeavor.

Williams is Jessica James, an aspiring playwright recovering from a recent breakup. That's basically it as far as the plot goes. Jessica waits anxiously for word about whether she'll get funding for her latest play and works at a theater teaching children in the interim. She has fantasies about getting even with her ex-boyfriend, Damon (Lakeith Stanfield), many of which involve him ending up flat on the pavement (in one case after having a piano fall on him). She goes out on dates and gets tentatively involved with Boone (Chris O'Dowd), a recently divorced app creator who still spends much of his time lingering outside the apartment of his ex-wife, and with whom Jessica creates one of the least believable movie couples in recent memory (both Williams and O'Dowd are talented performers but can't make this coupling seem anything more than forced). At one point Jessica returns to her hometown for her little sister's babyshower and is forced to contend with how little she has in common with the place where she came from and the people within it.

The Incredible Jessica James is the kind of movie so slight that it feels like it could only exist in the here and now in the age of streaming. That's not to say that it's without its charms, it's funny and clever in places and Williams is a delightful screen presence, but it's also pretty aimless, introducing ideas for stories without ever really developing any of them and just sort of... existing for 83 minutes. Though Jessica has issues that she's dealing with, there's no real narrative urgency to any of them (including her anxieties about getting her foot in the door as a writer so that her career can begin in earnest) as the film drifts back and forth between them. As I said, it plays like a long pilot for a series and while it might have worked as a series, it's a little bit boring as a film, even by the very relaxed standards of the "hangout movie."

The Incredible Jessica James is more successful as a pure showcase for Williams than it is as a film, allowing her to display her facility at comedy in a variety of situations, always with a light, cool touch that manages nevertheless to maintain the sharpness with which the character has been conceived. Modern romantic comedies - I'm not entirely sure that this movie quite qualifies as such, given that the protagonist's romantic pursuits aren't necessarily central to the story, but I'm also not sure how else it could be defined - tend to be populated by women who are unsure of themselves in one way or another and, whether they're conscious of it or not, seek a romantic attachment that will allow everything else to fall into place. By contrast, Jessica James is a woman brimming with self-confidence (so much that sometimes she comes off as overly dismissive of those around her) who quite actively does not need anyone else to make her life complete. Even her musings about her ex-boyfriend don't come so much as her wanting/needing him as simply trying to understand something about herself. It's a well-conceived, often refreshing character played with great nuance by Williams, who has all the qualities of a star but just needs a slightly better project to launch her there.

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