A peppy little joke machine, The Incredible Jessica James exists for the one and only reason of providing a showcase for the evident talents of its leading lady, Jessica Williams. Any random five minutes of screen time from this modest, and modestly engaging, romantic comedy provide ample evidence that this four-year Daily Show favorite has the quick wit, fast mouth, bursting energy and sufficient charisma to make the grade on the big screen, or anywhere else she puts her mind to it. On television, this sort of sharp-witted, sexually upfront, trials-of-life-in-the-big-city piece (Master of None, Fleabag, et al.) would quickly connect with smart young viewers, but while Williams’ fans will be righteously satisfied and new ones made by this good date-night item, the target audience is still more likely to wait for it to appear on small screens than to be lured into theaters.
Writer-director Jim Strouse has been a Sundance fixture for a decade now, beginning with Grace Is Gone and continuing with The Winning Season and People Places Things, the latter of which featured Williams in a supporting role. Strouse wrote the new film for the actress, and she blasts through it like a force of nature that will not be denied despite the fact that her character, a playwright named Jessica, spends most of her time being rejected, both professionally and personally, the latter due to a breakup with her great love Damon (LaKeith Stanfield).
With a pile of hair, nose ring, assertive physicality and a verbal channel that has no off button, Jessica, from the size of her notebook, would seem to have already written more plays than Ibsen. But as no one has yet confirmed her own high opinion of her craft, she’s stuck teaching at a non-profit children’s theater program in New York City and coping with the usual challenges of life in the big city.
Atop those issues, of course, is sex, a subject Jessica is adept at talking about as well as practicing. When she meets the quasi-dorky sad sack Boone (Chris O’Dowd), it wouldn’t appear that this pasty Irishman and black firecracker are fated for a momentous encounter between the sheets.
But this seemingly ill-matched pair end up striking some sparks (more like lightning bolts, it seems) after all, and some of the best writing and performing here involve the way both of these characters are perpetually on the edge of uncertainty about what they think of and want from each other; they could go either way, take it or leave it, and how they both handle it says a lot for taking the dive rather than sitting it out.
Although the film skips along at a brisk pace, there’s scant narrative; Jessica suffers through a visit to her ultra-straight parents’ home in Ohio, prepares her young charges for an out-of-town writers’ workshop weekend while struggling to get her star pupil’s stern mother to allow it and endures periodic forlorn attempts by Damon to regain her attention, all the while hoping for her big break. Boone has his own problems but sticks around, with O’Dowd, despite limited screen time, making him into an immensely likeable character adroit at sneaky mood shifts.
But The Incredible Jessica James cannot be mistaken for anything other than Williams’ calling-card movie, and she lays her abilities out there for all to see: high energy, eruptive humor, vaunting ambition, considerable ego, a nimble mood gearshift box and an endless belief in her own talent. She’s got a lot to offer, the door’s been opened, and now we’ll see what she does with it.
Production company: Beachside Productions
Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noel Wells, Zabryna Guerara, Taliyah Whitaker, Sarah Jones, Will Stephen, Susan Heyward, Megan Ketch
Director-screenwriter: Jim Strouse
Producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Executive producers: Jessica Williams, Kerri Hundley
Director of photography: Sean McElwee
Production designer: Nora Mendis
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Casting: Jessica Kelly, Kate Geller
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)