Rob Edelman: The Good And Not So Good

Jul 16, 2018

For as long as there have been films, there have been films about young people and their dreams and desires. Will they realize their career goals? Will they fall in love? Will that love last beyond a brief moment in time? Take for example THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, an independent American feature that was the closing night presentation at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Jessica James, energetically played by Jessica Williams, is a twentysomething who resides in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Jessica has had romance, and now there is a new guy in her life. One of the issues here is that, in an instant, she may think that she is in love but, in the next, she and her beau just may act like strangers.

Jessica also yearns for a career as a playwright, but the walls in her apartment are crammed with rejection letters. Clearly, she loves the theater, but she does not quite know if it loves her back. In a fantasy sequence, Oprah Winfrey actually knows her name, but will this fantasy ever become reality? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But the overall point is that you must go through life doing what you love, no matter the outcome. You must try. Winning the prize is, really, secondary, and this is a first-rate life lesson.

However, how exactly is THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES different from older coming-of-age films? How is it a reflection of our current culture? Well, for one thing, Jessica is African-American. Her boyfriend, played by Chris O’Dowd, is Caucasian. And this is not an issue. It’s the same for Jessica and her best pal, who also is Caucasian. What matters is that they get along. They are on the same wavelength. Skin color is irrelevant. Also, Jessica's family is solidly middle-class. They are not African-American stereotypes. How refreshing!

Plus, in THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, the woman may want to sleep with the man but the man wants to take it slow, give it some time. The man is the one who is dealing with emotional rejection. The point is that feelings involving both sexes do not just evaporate, and this also is in its way positively inspirational. And then, the script is crammed with words and phrases that are mirrors of our time. They only begin with “diversity,” “sexual harassment,” and “gender identity,” not to mention “Instagram,” “Twitter,” “Facebook,” and “social media.” Today, you may get to know someone by how they represent themselves on the Internet, rather than on a date or over a cup of coffee.

However, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES is far from ideal. In one of the opening sequences, Jessica bops up the stairs of her apartment building. She boogies past a neighbor carrying a basket filled with laundry. In an instant, she grabs some clothing and tosses it in the air, as if to say, “Ain’t I cool!” This is how we are introduced to Jessica and, from this, are we supposed to like her? At another point, one of the characters falls out a window and lies unconscious on the pavement. The punchline here is that a person casually steps over him and keeps walking, as if he is just another piece of rubbish. This sequence reminded me of a bit in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which is close to a half-century old. Here, Joe Buck, new to Manhattan, stops and stares incredulously as a man has passed out right in front of Tiffany’s and is ignored by one and all who pass him by. In 1969, this scene was meant to jar audiences. In 2018, its purpose is to garner laughs. So here, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES tellingly serves to mirror current American values.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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