Twenty-something aspiring playwright Jessica James (Jessica Williams) navigates life in the big city, strained family ties, and heartbreak as she pursues her dreams.
(Jessica Williams plays a title character named Jessica James on the same streaming service that gave us a popular show called Jessica Jones, and my brain is computing exactly none of that — consider this a preemptive apology for anything that slips past me while I’m writing this.)
Wait for it.
Wait for it…
…………………The Incredible Jessica James would be better titled The Mostly All Right Jessica Ja—ow, ow, not the face, NOT THE FACE!
It’s an indie dramedy where the edy works better than the dram, and I’m okay with that — The Incredible Jessica James is a short, breezy watch, and very funny to boot. It’s the sort of movie that’s content to be pleasant and enjoyable — it doesn’t go anywhere all that dark, it doesn’t do anything all that intense, and even its most dramatic developments are handled with tact.
There isn’t all that much to say about it, because it doesn’t have all that much going on to begin with. It’s just ninety minutes of good-natured, unpretentious fun. The movie especially shines as a comedy. The world it inhabits isn’t expressly comical; it’s pretty close to our own. It just has the benefit of being about funny people who live in that world.
This movie feels like the full realization of Jessica Williams’ growth as a performer since we were first introduced to her as a Daily Show correspondent a few years ago. She started as one of the youngest people ever to join the cast, and her inexperience definitely showed. For a while, I cringed my way through her segments. But she kept at it, and with time and quite a lot of turnover, she became one of the most visible and “senior” members of the cast, despite being younger than just about everyone else on it. Now, we have the feature film debut, and it seems as though she brings everything to bear.
The combination of the performance and the sharp writing makes for a movie that feels like it has a big laugh every two or three minutes. The dialogue is extremely witty and quotable, and the characters’ unique quirks bounce off one another well. Every exchange feels playful; despite the grounded quality of the film as a whole, it looks like the actors are having a lot of fun.
Jessica James is a really fun character. She’s basically a tornado of incident that sweeps through the room and drags everyone else into its antics. She’s upbeat, energetic, and has an extremely high opinion of herself — but not in a way that feels egotistical; she thinks everyone is amazing, with the occasional exception of her ex-boyfriend (Keith Stanfield), whom she frequently imagines dying in gleefully over-the-top ways. She also has absolutely no filter, but not due to a lack of self-awareness: She says whatever pops into her head in full knowledge of its inappropriateness. She doesn’t have much respect for social norms; they just make things take longer. We’re introduced to her in the middle of a Tinder meet-up, criticizing the entirety of her date’s performance; explaining her expectations, what she perceives to be his expectations, the reasoning behind both, and the likelihood that either will play out; and then caps it off by outright telling him he’s her to make her ex jealous and offering him pointers on how best to achieve that.
The movie doubles as something of a romantic comedy, as Jessica meets and clicks with an older, divorced man (Chris O’Dowd), and that relationship really works despite how bad it looks on paper. The two characters have fundamentally nothing in common; she lives and breathes theater, and he asks her if she wrote Hamilton on their first date. But he finds her “forthright” quality, as he so diplomatically puts it, amusing rather than alienating, and seems to appreciate her willingness to let him say whatever he wants in return. They say relationships are built on trust, and this is perhaps the pinnacle — their chemistry is rooted in their ability to say and do basically anything to one another, to meet as equals in the battle of wits. Most importantly, they’re completely free to be themselves around each other, knowing there will be absolutely no judgment. Each finds the other’s flaws charming rather than alienating. They’re actually kind of adorable. And very, very funny — their relationship is, as stated, built on the open and honest embrace of their hangups, so they just kind of make fun of each other’s issues and allow each other to be weird and stupid. He’s immune to her lack of social grace; she’s cool with him leering at his ex-wife from behind a garbage can across the street. They even make a hobby out of stalking each other’s exes so they can feel like they’ve moved on.
The dramatic half of the movie isn’t as strong. I wouldn’t say it has much of a story to begin with; it’s a low-stakes, slice-of-life sort of thing. But it’s still trying to go places, and I don’t think it gets there organically. I’m not sure what the movie perceives Jessica’s flaws as being, how she’s changed by the end of the film, and what the audience is supposed to think about where it ends up. The end of the movie is clearly trying to sell some sense of resolution, but I don’t know what it thinks it’s actually resolved. It takes us on a tour through Jessica’s life but doesn’t use much of what we see to comment on her thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs.
In short, the movie plays on the funnybone and not the heart. That’s worthwhile enough. It isn’t a great movie, but there’s greatness in it, more than enough to compensate for its shortcomings. If you feel like you need a few laughs this weekend, I’m more than happy to recommend The Incredible Jessica James.