[This is a re-post of my review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival; The Incredible Jessica James hits Netflix tomorrow]
Like many who saw Jessica Williams on The Daily Show, she was a standout correspondent on a show that’s had its fair share of gifted comedians. She was charismatic, cutting, and incredibly funny, so it’s not too much of a surprise that she brings those qualities to Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James, a film that feels like it’s tailor-made for Williams’ distinctive personality. What is remarkable is how she effortlessly carries the feature and proves herself an A-list talent who deserves to be leading a variety of films.
Jessica James (Williams) is a struggling playwright in New York City who pays her bills by teaching theater writing to children as part of a non-profit afterschool program. She’s also working through the aftermath of her breakup with Damon (Lakeith Stanfield), which eventually gets her put on a blind date with Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who recently became divorced. As Jessica and Boone sift through the wreckage of past relationships and the requisite baggage it brings, they warily start to forge a new romance.
The film really lives or dies with Williams. Taken purely on a script level (which Strouse also wrote), The Incredible Jessica James could have veered into the twee or the contrived. The arcs are a little too formulaic and the dialogue could have sounded forced if the actress didn’t display expert comic timing. I won’t go so far as to say Jessica James would have been a bad film without Williams, but she’s so amazing in the lead role that it’s hard to imagine this movie without her.
In her performance as James, Williams displays all of the winning charm fans came to saw from her segments on The Daily Show, but she acquits herself well at playing a character rather than a comedian. What I mean by that is that it never feels like Williams is reaching for a laugh or that her character merely exists as a joke-delivery system. She feels like a real person but imbued by Williams’ distinctive talents. She’s not just funny as James, but she has no problem with the pathos involved. All of the character’s pain and insecurity feel real, and while other actors might try to play James’ guarded nature as taciturn or aloof, Williams’ wisely uses her magnetic personality as a shield. We see James using her wit as a sword to fend off any potential pain.
Credit also has to go to the supporting cast especially O’Dowd, Stanfield, and Noël Wells as James’ best friend. Even though this is Williams’ show, there’s not a weak link in the cast, and everyone plays off each other well. Everyone is confident enough to let Williams shine and the relationships always feel authentic as a result.
Hopefully, The Incredible Jessica James will become Williams’ new calling card in the same way that The Office showed that Steve Carell and Ed Helms could take on roles beyond “comic reporter”. With Jessica James, Williams has stepped out of the shadow of The Daily Show and I can only pray that what lies before her are a slew of roles that take advantage of her wit, charm, and talent.