Chris O'Dowd comedies

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES: Feeling Good About Good People

Friday, July 28, 2017 Rob Samuelson

Toughness is a necessary skill to cultivate, but it’s really difficult to fake. People can spot faux toughness from a mile away. That’s a lesson that Jessica James must learn throughout the new Netflix film that bears her name, The Incredible Jessica James.

Photo credit: The Incredible Jessica James/IMDb

Played by Jessica Williams of The Daily Show fame, the movie’s Jessica is a heartbroken playwright who is the product of a recent breakup. In response to this relatable and woeful situation, she explores the internet’s most disappointing region, online dating. Her early dates are disastrous, but she has only herself to blame. After all, she designs these would-be romantic encounters to take place at bars and restaurants she knows her ex-boyfriend, played by Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield, frequents with the women he sees to get over his own sadness over their split. The only reason these “dates” don’t call her out for her issues is because they, too, are nervous and trying to be tough and cool themselves. When you only meet someone once and your goal is to impress them, you don’t typically bring a whole lot of realness to the table with you.

If you did, you’d be forced to deal with that realness. And who wants to do such a thing as that?

Jessica certainly doesn’t. But she must embrace her vulnerability and her hurt feelings to move forward. She struggles to get theatre companies to perform her plays. She pins every rejection letter to her wall as a perverse trophy while she kicks herself for “only” being able to participate in theatre (“It’s the only thing I care about.”) when she teaches a group of kids in her Bushwick, New York, neighborhood the art of performance. She’s tasked with giving these precocious youngsters the tools to portray real emotions when she’s not all that great at living with the emotions herself.

This is some heavy thematic stuff swirling around a comedy.

Oh yeah, The Incredible Jessica Jones is a comedy. It’s a darn strong one, at that. Jessica’s misanthropy is always a comic problem, one she works out in her head with several goofy “conversations” with her ex that always leave her unfulfilled because they’re not real. If these talks are only with an apparition, she can’t get actual answers about why she’s alone. It’s a problem she must overcome in a series of witty and endlessly charming encounters with a new potential partner, played by Chris O’Dowd, and her boundary-allergic best friend, Tasha (Noël Wells).

This plays out under the steady workmanlike direction of Jim Strouse, who also wrote the script. Strouse plays in a sandbox that hasn’t been touched much in recent years. He imbues The Incredible Jessica James with the look and tone of Miramax romantic comedies from the mid-1990s, similar to early David O. Russell films like Flirting with Disaster. The design of the titles, the incidental and soundtrack music, and the stakes for its protagonist’s life could all have played in theaters in the latter half of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Williams’s performance of Strouse’s words are where the movie shines brightest. She tries to put a shell around herself, but she’s an ol’ softie on the inside. She beams with pride when she connects with her students. Williams bounces off her young co-stars as they run through acting exercises like roaring at each other and a game of “Yes and …” that any improv students in the audience will appreciate. Williams feeds off a chemical reaction with them that may leave the audience wishing for more of Jessica’s teaching career. Her regular dates with O’Dowd as Boone, an app designer getting over a divorce with a woman he can’t get out of his mind, show the two onscreen comedians baring all of their emotions in an attempt by their characters to be brutally honest with each other. That toughness that Jessica fakes early on quickly melts when she’s with Boone, and the opposites -- you wouldn’t expect theatre dorks and techies to run in the same circles -- complement each other in lovely and entertaining ways that help each of the characters cut through some of their respective sadness over their current place in the world.

That toughness that Jessica tried in vain to project to the world isn’t for her. A hip, cooler-than-thou approach to human interaction just doesn’t cut it for a storyteller like her, but a certain kind of toughness is available if she’s willing to tweak her perception of her situation. It arrives in the form of perseverance -- in the face of never ending setbacks in her love life, in her career pursuits, in getting through to her most promising students. That’s toughness. And it’s really fun to see a well-told story about a nice person figuring herself out.

Director: Jim Strouse
Writer: Jim Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noël Wells
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Available on Netflix

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