The Incredible Jessica James ** ½ / *****
Directed by: James C. Strouse.
Written by: James C. Strouse.
Starring: Jessica Williams (Jessica James), Chris O'Dowd (Boone), Noël Wells (Tasha), Lakeith Stanfield (Damon), Megan Ketch (Melissa), Susan Heyward (Jerusa), Anne Carney (Mrs. Taggart), Taliyah Whitaker (Shandra), Sarah Jones (Herself).
There is one reason to see The Incredible Jessica James and that is its star Jessica Williams, best known for her stint on The Daily Show, who here proves she can carry a movie on her shoulders, and do so with ease. The only real downside is that you end up wishing that the film itself have Williams anything really to do, or was about just about anything. It’s a film you watch and enjoy for the most part, even as you realize that the film doesn’t really have a reason to exist – doesn’t really have a point of view, or anything to say. It’s just there as a showcase for Williams – and it does that well. I just wish it did something, anything else.
The movie centers on the title character, an African American woman in her mid-20s, who lives in Bushwick and whose life revolves around the theater. She is a playwright – and although no one seems all that interested in putting on her plays, she is undeterred. She knows she will make it because, well, she has to. In the meantime, she teaches theater to children and loves it. She has just broken up with her boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield), but still obsesses over him. Her friend Tasha (Noel Wells) decides she needs to start dating again – and fixes her up with Boone (Chris O’Dowd) – a recently divorced man, who, like Jessica, is still obsessed with his ex. They kinda of sorta start dating – but basically just make cute banter in each other’s general direction.
The film is frustrating in many small ways. The biggest one for me is I wanted to know something, anything about the plays Jessica writes. At one point, she gives everything she has ever written – in a large binder – to Boone to read, and all he says when he gives it back is “You’re complicated”. What I wanted to know is what is she writing. Jessica talks about the need to express herself constantly – and yet I never got the sense of what precisely she feels so strongly that has to express it. My other larger problem with the movie is an interlude mid-film where Jessica returns home to Ohio from the big city – never a particularly good sign in a movie – which I found so condensing to her family that I was annoyed – and happy that it ended so quickly.
Williams though remains a delight from beginning to end – even when she’s doing something completely irrelevant to everything else – like an early dance sequence, where she simply walks around dancing with such glee, it’s easy to not notice how forced he scene feels. Chris O’Dowd does his Chris O’Dowd thing, which is more charming here than most (although when Wells described him as no more than 30, I did a double take). The kids at the Jessica’s writer’s workshop are also cute and funny.
I just kept expecting The Incredible Jessica James to become something more – or really, become much of anything. It’s one of those films you hear people raving about out of Sundance, but when you see it six months later, you wonder why. The film is fine – it’s cute and sweet, and Williams is a star. But there’s just not all that much here beyond Williams – and that grows frustrating as the film moves along.