If you’d had the pleasure of hearing Jessica Williams co-hosting the podcast 2 Dope Queens or seen her work on The Daily Show, you can go into The Incredible Jessica James already knowing you’re going to have a good time, but this new film from writer/director Jim Strouse is a perfect introduction to her talents as well. Williams is magnetic as James, a a playwright in Brooklyn who’s transitioning from a recent breakup with her boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield). But her new friendship with a recent divorcee named Boone (Chris O’Dowd) makes this goal far more difficult than she imagined, especially when sparks fly between the two and they wind up in bed together.
What’s fun about Jessica’s respective dynamics with Damon and Boone is that while they’re obviously important things for her, they’re not to where they define every waking moment of her existence. There’s an equal amount of time spent towards Jessica and her quest to make her mark in the world as a playwright, and it’s a delight watching her interact with her students as she tries to show them what she loves about theater. The dialogue between her and the kids feels believable, the filmmakers wisely don’t deter into having her talk down to the children or the kids coming off too adult.
There’s a constant weird blend of bizarre humor (including a running gag where Damon meets various and increasingly cartoonish demises in Jessica’s dreams) that never quite goes into anything too boundary-pushing, and an earnest sweetness when it comes to the relationships on display. Jessica herself dictates the entire tone of this movie, but she’s so likable that it never really becomes an issue. The script wisely doesn’t present her as infallible, and while she does have a fair amount of scenes where the audience will side with her when she snarks at someone, it also allows her to grow as a character and show humility when necessary.
Jess’s assertive and frank personality is both a blessing and a curse for her at numerous points in the film. She values honesty in herself and everyone around her, as she points out in one scene, and this not only makes her attractive to many other characters it also serves as a turn-off at times.
As a rom-com, there’s a stronger emphasis on breezy comedy than there is gut-wrenching emotional moments. The story is smart and sympathetic, so it’s easy to feel for Jessica as a character, but there’s no sense of mood-whiplash or any major detours into hard drama. For example, there’s a subplot involving how distant she feels from her family, which leads into a bigger arc displaying how uncomfortable Jessica is at displaying too much vulnerability in front of others. But it never comes off as unpleasant or cold- Jessica is simply a warm-hearted person who nevertheless has some insecurities, as we all do.
Watching this film is essentially like hanging with a laid-back cool buddy for a while who has some interesting stories to tell, and overall it makes The Incredible Jessica James a fun, unique experience. It goes out of its way to defy racial, gender-oriented and sexual stereotypes in its story, in a nuanced and intelligent manner that never feels shoehorned. As charismatic as Williams is here, she also has the benefit of working with a strong supporting cast that helps make this film even more enjoyable. Easily recommended.