‘The Incredible Jessica James’ Review: Jessica Williams Is Stellar In This Irresistible Comedy
On paper, everything about The Incredible Jessica James sounds redundant and cliché. A young New York City transplant living in gentrified Brooklyn struggles to find success in the arts. She’s still not over a recent break-up, then meets and falls for an unlikely guy. We’ve heard this story before, but a refreshing sense of humor and a stellar performance from actress-comedian Jessica Williams brings Jim Strouse’s Sundance Closing Night Film to life.
Williams’ Jessica is an aspiring playwright who works at a non-profit teaching theater to young kids. She’s been single for three-and-a-half months, but still wakes up from feverish stress dreams where she’s arguing with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). After some disappointing Tinder dates, her best friend (Noel Wells) sets her up on a date with an older divorcee named Boone, (Chris O’Dowd). What ensues is fairly predictable – they don’t like each other at first, then they do, then its complicated.
I’ll be the first to admit this was not a film I thought I’d like. I was reluctant to watch something another aimless aspiring writer oozing with self-pity. But Jessica James is different, and follows a likable character who’s passionate, driven, and genuinely desires to make herself better. The film swaps the self-deprecating narcissism of so many movies like this for self-worth and tireless ambition. Williams’ Jessica never lets her current career problems thwart her. She tapes her rejection letters from producing companies to her wall, not to wallow, but to inspire her to keep applying – and she does, and more and more letters arrive in the mail. When one rejection letter from Playwrights Horizons compliments her writing style and voice, she calls her best friend beaming with excitement; sure it’s a rejection, but at least it’s a personalized one that noticed her work. Even better, Jessica never doubts her worth or her talent. When Boone admits he really likes her, she responds, with glowing confidence rather than arrogance or ego, “Of course you do. Everyone likes me because I’m dope!”
Williams’ performance, full of fiery energy, snappy quips, and childlike playfulness, makes Jessica a pure delight to watch. She’s the type of person you’d want to dance with at a bar, or whom you might want to avoid a date with if you’re not prepared for blunt honesty – in the film’s opening scene Jessica wastes no time grilling her date about his Tinder message asking, “Wanna bone?” Williams lands each of her lines with a perfect punch, while also bringing a warmth to her more somber, heartfelt moments with a young playwright in her class (a lovely performance by Taliyah Whitaker). It’s a role that makes you wonder why the heck Williams hasn’t starred in more films, and makes you hope other directors will get the memo and start giving her the screen time she deserves.
It would be a shame if Strouse’s film was written off as just another box-checking Brooklyn rom-com. It’s ripe with a timely sense of humor about hipster culture, social media, and online dating. It may not be a film that ages well, but much like Broad City and 2015’s Hello My Name Is Doris, The Incredible Jessica James has its finger on the pulse of millennial culture, minus the cynicism and sulking that so often comes with it. Funny, feel good, and touching, The Incredible Jessica James will leave you with a smile on your face. And who could argue with that?