Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix)

Starring ex-Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James is another indie comedy scooped up by Netflix earlier this year.

Jessica James is a struggling New York playwright who has just broken up with her boyfriend. As she deals with rejection and a new potential love interest (Chris O'Dowd), the incredibly together Jessica begins realise she is not as together as she wants to be.

Five years ago, James C. Strouse's The Incredible Jessica James would be the kind of indie that I would wait to see pop up at my local arthouse theatre. With Netflix picking up movies like this and Deidra and Lanie Rob A Train, I don't have to trek into the CBD at some ungodly hour to watch it.

First thing first, Williams is great. More than anything else, she is the reason to watch this movie. She is funny, charismatic and manages to carry the character's emotional arc even as the movie around her falters.

The movie is always watchable, and occasionally hits a comedic target (Jessica's trip home is toe-curling, even without the punchline of her baby present), but the movie's strength comes from Williams in the lead role. According to the information available online, Williams was involved from the beginning in the development of the character, and it shows.

It's become something of a cliche, but what I really liked about Jessica was that while she does have romantic entanglements that she has to deal with, she spends most of the movie invested in her love of theatre. Unlike a lot of female characters who are derailed by romance and fixate solely on this, this movie actually spends time with Jessica and the things she is interested in. It's an emphasis that is usually only seen with male characters, and it fleshed her out.

There is a lot to like about Jessica James, but there is something weirdly undercooked about the movie. While Jessica's emotional journey eventually comes into focus, it takes almost half the movie for this dramatic thrust to coalesce. It does not help that some of the obstacles and subplots she runs into do not carry the emotional stakes that the movie thinks they have: the dream meetings with her ex are especially guilty of this - because they are imagined by the main character, we are deprived of external insight.

It's not necessary for a character to be defined by other people, but in this case the inciting incident is Jessica's offscreen breakup, and since the movie continues to return to it (via dream sequences) I was expecting a little more insight than what we got. We get it eventually, but the movie is almost over. Thankfully, Williams' performance has done the heavy lifting in making her evolution believable, because I wasn't really getting it from the movie.

Chris O'Dowd is solid as her would-be love interest, but both he and Jessica's ex (who only appears in the flesh at the beginning and the end) feel like sketches. They are intended as brick walls for Jessica to bounce off, so we can gain more insight into her character. However, when we start to get into the home stretch and Jessica confronts her insecurities, it feels like we are missing the context to make her resolution feel cathartic.

It sounds like I'm ripping this movie, but I found it pretty enjoyable. It may not be as fully fleshed-out as it could be, but it's a good time. While not as incredible as its title, The Incredible Jessica James is worth a look for Williams' central performance. Hopefully this film can act as a calling card for more high-profile pictures.

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