The Incredible Jessica James feels like one of those test runs at a movie you often see from film students. And I mean that in the best sense. It’s a spare 85 minutes, and has almost no plot. It’s mostly a framework on which to hang a series of dialogues and encounters for showing off the talents of its various actors and filmmakers. But it absolutely crackles with energy.
By far the biggest draw is Jessica Williams, who you may recognize from her run on The Daily Show. She plays the titular character as friendly, brash, fiercely intelligent, and operating in a near-chronic state of ironic detachment. In one scene, Jessica meets a guy from Tinder, and proceeds to psychoanalyze him for starting their conversation on the app with “Wanna bone?” She breezily informs the kids to whom she teaches community theater that marriage is an outdated social construct. For her little sister’s baby shower, Jessica creates a children’s book about smashing the patriarchy, leaving the other exurban Ohio housewives in a state of polite confusion. One of the strengths of Williams’ performance is how she simultaneously communicates that Jessica earnestly believes in all this stuff, but also uses her behavior as a shield against her own internal turmoil.
Jessica’s recently broken up with her boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield), an awkward artisan who creates custom-made smartphone cases. Several times throughout the movie, Jessica either dreams or imagines bumping into him on the street. The conversations always start friendly and healthy and inevitably devolve into disaster: in one instance, the boyfriend is crushed Looney Tunes-style by a randomly falling piano. Writer and director Jim Strouse has enormous fun with these sequences. I’m pretty sure the only times the two characters are actually in the same room with one another is at the beginning and end of the film, but I could be wrong.
Jessica’s also an aspiring playwright, and she adorns the wall of her apartment with all the various rejection letters her plays have received. “I love theater, but I don’t know if it loves me back,” she says at one point. The terror of that possibility clearly eats at her. So she does what she can to pass on her love to the kids at the community center, while making a few extra bucks with random event waitressing gigs passed on by her best friend Tasha (Noël Wells).
Into this mess of a life one day falls Boone (Chris O’Dowd). He’s an app designer who’s recently gone through a divorce, and Tasha sets the two of them up in the straightforward hope they can serve as each other’s rebounds.
When they sit down for a meal, you can almost feel Jessica revving up to sabotage the night with her aggressively friendly intellectual combat. But Boone proves tougher than he looks. His sardonic reserve is a good shock-absorber for Jessica’s hard-charging style, and the night shifts into a weirdly honest mutual therapy session. Once Boone and Jessica realize they’ve eked out a cautious camaraderie, they start getting creative: They convince one another to unfollow their exes on social media, on the condition the other then follows the ex, so they can provide one another updates if needed. This produces some odd consequences: both Boone and Jessica become impressed with the professional talents of the other’s previous partner. If you enjoyed Dowd’s work in Bridesmaids, you won’t be disappointed here.
Jessica’s only other major challenge is one of her students, who can’t go to playwright retreat because of the messy schedule produced by her own parents’ divorce. Technically speaking, Jessica gets more emotionally entangled than a teacher probably should. It’s a tough-but-necessary encounter with her own immaturity. And the way the episode gets under Jessica’s skin is a helpful window into the character.
A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that the students, like their teacher, are people of color. Jessica lives in the rundown bohemian outskirts of New York City, and the film subtly but never explicitly acknowledges that Boone and Tasha, who are both white, live in better circumstances. Race mostly serves as an extra accelerant to the dynamics in the film: it is one additional hurdle to her and Boone’s relationship, and yet another reason for Jessica to armor herself emotionally against the world.
If The Incredible Jessica James has a weakness, it’s Jessica’s status as a playwright. Conveying an internal art like writing is always difficult in film, so the audience has to rely on second-order observations like other characters reacting to her work. We don’t get to see Jessica perform any theater, so again her own love must be communicated through professing, and through her interactions with the students. At the same time, Strouse doesn’t push the issue of Jessica’s profession further than the film can handle. It serves only as a modest plot arc on which to build the scenes that really matter.
Strouse’s visuals are nothing to write home about. But he can be observant: When Jessica meets that Tinder date, he’s a perfectly decent and well-behaved individual in person, despite the “Wanna bone?” opening text. It testifies to an ease with human complexity that serves Strouse well throughout the film. And as I said, all the actors are more than game.
I wasn’t blown away by The Incredible Jessica James. But I enjoyed myself. And I’ll definitely be interested to see whatever Williams and Strouse cook up next.
The Incredible Jessica James opens on Netflix today.