' ' Cinema Romantico: The Incredible Jessica James

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Incredible Jessica James

When semi-hapless Boone (Chris O’Dowd) advises Jessica James (Jessica Williams), whom he is kinda, sorta seeing, that he really likes her, Jessica James doesn’t get a gleam in her eye; if anything, she frowns. She says: “Of course you do. Everyone does. I’m freaking dope.” That’s an assertive line. Not everyone could get away with it. In the mouths of some, it could yield an off-putting arrogance, but Williams lends it something more like enervation, refusing to subscribe to the antiquated notion of a rom com leading lady who can’t earn the necessary love because she isn’t sure she actually deserves it. Jessica Williams decides “The Incredible Jessica James” deserves it. That’s why she’s Incredible. That’s why the movie opens with a scene where she comically shuts down a Tinder date. Who’s got time for this crap? Not her.

That, though, is why it’s so odd to see writer/director James C. Strouse try so often to shoehorn this willful character into a traditional romantic comedy structure. The Netflix film’s most prominent relationship is the one between Jessica and Boone, engendered by her break-up with Damon (LaKeith Stanfield) that opens the film, and by the divorce that Boone is still struggling to get over, and their chemistry is something less than amorous, more affable, which isn’t actually a bad thing because when they are simply offering sympathy and support by way of humorous banter, their would-be relationship breezily excels. If there was ever a time to dismantle the notion of The Friend Zone, this would have been it, but Strouse has no interest in destruction, let alone deconstruction. Alas.

Her real primary relationship is with the theater, both as a dream of making a living as a playwright and making a living, sort of, teaching theater at a non-profit to kids. Though she effuses genuine joy for what the stage can provide, her struggles to find success prompt her to sort of project onto Shandra (Taliyah Whiaker), a student Jessica takes under her wing and encourages to attend a writing retreat with the real-life Sarah Jones, only to become disgruntled when Shandra would rather spend time with the father she rarely sees. The scene in which Jessica begs Shandra to attend the retreat, set in her young charge’s bedroom, underscores both her failings and how something went wrong in her chilhood that she is seeking to mend, which is communicated so much better here than a rote mid-movie return to her Midwestern home.

The real disappointment of “The Incredible Jessica James”, however, is how we little get to hear of her actual playwright voice, emblemized in the gigantic binder of apparent scripts that she gives to Boone to read. He does read them, but we never get to hear the material contained inside, and so when her work does eventually get noticed it not only makes little sense how or why but feels as if we were unintentionally robbed of the most important element of her life. Jessica Williams obviously has a voice but you keep wishing her alter ego’s voice was heard more, and heard better than dream sequences involving Damon that dig into her subconscious.

“This is theater,” Jessica tells Shandra. “We don’t have to do any of this. We do it simply because we must.” That itself is a terribly hackneyed line, one in which Williams embraces the staleness and then pushes right past it to find something fresh. That’s the voice in need of a better cinematic support system next time out.

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