This week, a news item revealed that Netflix is $20 billion in debt. That’s Billion. Much of that debt is in flux for the making an procuring of more original IP for Netflix to distribute (such as making more films of the wildly popular Adam Sandler films). As such, buying up Sundance’s closing night film, The Incredible Jessica James for $3m (0.015% of its debt) seems like a drop in the bucket for the powerhouse distributor. While The Incredible Jessica James is a pleasant enough film, it isn’t likely to be a film to inspire thousands of new subscribers. It’s a “nice to have.”
Sundance has a bad habit of closing out their festival not with a bang, but a whimper. Critics are under duress from having to have written about the dozens of films that have filled their eyeballs for a week and a half. They’ve long since exhausted their thesaurus to come up with positive new terms for the Sundance formula. The distributors have blown their wads on the much more Award-friendly Oscarbait-y films in the hopes of garnering awards if not selling tickets at the box office. Closing night is merely a formality as everybody jets home so they can be at work the following Monday.
The Incredible Jessica James fits this formula to a T. It’s a nice movie. Jessica James (Jessica Williams) is a kid’s theater mentor going through a bad breakup when her best friend hooks her up with an older divorcee (Chris O’Dowd) who happens to have designed an app. While navigating her own trials, Jessica has to deal with a theater student who is torn between a divorce, and oh my god do I not actually care. Look, if that set up appeals to you, more power to you. James C. Strouse is very good at making perfectly pleasant breezy romantic comedies that you’ll forget about in a year. Last year, his feature People Places Things centered Jemaine Clement as an Artiste Graphique going through a divorce and then hooking up with Regina Hall. It was perfectly fine and I barely remember anything about it other than it also starring Jessica Williams.
I guess the biggest reason I don’t care about this movie is that, for all of the information we are given about Jessica James – she’s a mostly failed theater writer, she loves the kids in her camp, her dreams are neutered fantasy fulfillment, she’s resilient and her home life is odd – Strouse and Williams never manage to crack her shell. She’s a cool girl, but we hardly ever learn the why’s of Jessica James. Why is she attracted to Chris O’Dowd (other than he’s kind of averagely hot)? Why did she and her ex break up? Why is she so resilient? We’re expected to fill in the gaps with our knowledge of various signifiers (remember when you got so many rejection letters you could tape them into wallpaper?), but Strouse never manages to plunge deeper than the surface of things.
Still, if you’re primed to like that indie fluffy romance movie, you’re going to like this movie. It’s the perfect movie for Netflix and Chill because you won’t miss much while you’re doing the “chilling.” Let’s just hope that Netflix doesn’t disappear in the short term.