To be fair, it’s difficult not to be outshone by Jessica Williams, whose star has been continually on the rise since her debut on The Daily Show in 2012. It’s interesting, then, that this irrepressible personality would have her first starring film role project be as low-key as The Incredible Jessica James, especially since it seems to have been written just for her. Writer-director Jim Strouse (People Places Things) nails the trendsetting speech patterns and whip-smart witticisms familiar to listeners of Williams’ podcast with fellow comedian Phoebe Robinson, 2 Dope Queens, and writes Williams as a confident, charismatic young woman who rocks the hell out of a jumpsuit and who’s incapable of living on anyone’s terms but her own. Compared to her, the rest of the film can’t help but feel slight.
Williams stars, obviously, as Jessica James, a 25-year-old aspiring playwright who lives “deep, deep, deep in Bushwick” and has just returned to the dating scene after having her heart broken by the pierced and tattooed David (Atlanta standout Lakeith Stanfield). An opening scene of Jessica dressing down an inadequate Tinder date seems to promise a modern update on classic screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, but the film soon settles into the more naturalistic rhythm of the contemporary indie dramedy.
In between scenes of Jessica’s job at a playwriting workshop for kids and her friendship with sweet barista and aspiring actress Tasha (Master Of None’s Noël Wells), the film gently eases into a tentative romance between Jessica and Boone (Chris O’Dowd, the thinking woman’s rom-com love interest), a recently divorced app developer with whom Jessica has nothing in common but a willingness to be brutally honest. Initially, the two fall into bed together out of equal parts heartbreak and restless sexual frustration, but over time they find themselves spending less time bitching about their exes and more time just enjoying each other’s company.
O’Dowd and Williams play well off of each other, conveying the stages of a new relationship from awkward first date to first big fight with an easy and believable chemistry. She plays well off of Stanfield as well, in recurring interludes where Jessica imagines getting the last word with her feckless ex, which add a welcome dash of surrealism to the proceedings. The film does contain a few truly funny bits, like Jessica’s gift of a homemade child’s guide to dismantling the patriarchy to her conservative pregnant sister, making it feel like an enjoyable hangout with a funny friend throughout its 85-minute running time.
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Comparisons to HBO’s Girls are inevitable when dealing with comedies about young women (aspiring writers from Ohio, even) searching for love and self-discovery in New York City. And while the scenarios depicted in The Incredible Jessica James are more relatable than the adventures of Hannah Horvath and company and Jessica a more likable lead, this same easygoing, down-to-earth attitude makes the film less impactful. This is especially evident when Jessica goes home for her younger sister’s baby shower, in scenes that are sharply observed in their details but oddly superficial in their emotional content.
“You’re a very complicated person,” Boone says at one point, hinting at depths of anger and sadness that the film tells us are contained within Jessica, but don’t quite manifest on-screen. Perhaps, for her star power to achieve maximum wattage, Williams needs be the author of the story as well as its subject.