PARK CITY – The first scene of James Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Thursday night, is a star-making showcase for the talents of its leading lady Jessica Williams. The former “Daily Show” correspondent, actress, comedian, actress and “2 Dope Girls” podcast co-host plays another Jessica, a struggling playwright on a Tindr date with a guy who may never realize how much he’s being played.
The entire sequence finds Jessica immediately informing this match that everything he’s doing is wrong starting with asking her “Wanna bone?” when he first messaged her. Or, if he wanted to have sex with her he should have been more suggestive when he first arrived at the bar. Same for if he wanted to date her. By the end of the bit she’s got the guy spinning in circles unsure if she’s interested or not or what he should or should not say. What he really doesn’t know is that she purposely picked this particular locale in hopes of running into her ex-boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield, solid) and that her date with him would make her ex jealous. And, of course, he arrives with his own new girlfriend in tow that scuttles her plans and makes her feel worse. The whole sequence feels like it could have been plucked out of an early Judd Apatow or Paul Feig movie and is genuinely funny. You actually believe the rest of the movie might be a true showcase for Williams’ charismatic starpower and comedic voice.
If only that was the case.
Williams’ character is at a crossroads that feels like life or death when you’re 25-years-old. She’s making a living teaching kids at a non-profit theater company, but frustrated she can’t get any other theater companies or producers to bite on one of her plays. A date with a recently divorced apps inventor, Boone (Chris O’Dowd, amiable), seemingly doesn’t go well, but they end up sleeping together anyway and pseudo-dating even if neither believe it will work out in the end. (By the way did we mention he’s an apps inventor? How dated is that joke in 2017?). Boone has his own issue getting over his ex-wife (Megan Ketch, barely an impression) and the duo decide to deal with their obsessions by unfollowing their own ex’s and following the other’s on Instagram. It’s one of the few inspired parts of the film that doesn’t seem completely ad-libbed by Willams herself (and it honestly could have used more ad-libs).
Strouse is best know for his Sundance grand jury and audience prize winning drama “Grace is Gone,” the underrated comedy “The Winning Season” and 2015’s “People Places Things” which featured Williams in a supporting role. Despite Williams presence, “Incredible” turns out to be standard indie rom com fare and shockingly tame for a writer/director of his talents. As the story progresses it becomes less and less interesting and worst of all – gasp – cliché.
It doesn’t help that beyond the primary questions whether Jessica will ever be “discovered” or really connect with Boone the film’s secondary storylines are not as interesting as Strouse obviously intended. There is the lesbian BFF (Noel Wells)who doesn’t do much but help out by performing in Jessica’s student showcased and provide common sense advice Jessica will ignore. There is the student that Jessica becomes obsessed with bringing to a weekend retreat for young writers but has to convince her divorced parents it’s actually worth it. There is the quick trip back home to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower where Jessica can’t seem to tolerate anyone in her family for even one minute. That’s fine and relatable to many, but it serves no purpose in Jessica’s arc and just makes her seem like an out of touch a-hole.
What makes all of these familiar tropes even bearable is Williams herself. She didn’t earn a shared screenwriting credit, but so much of Jessica’s voice in the movie sounds like bits Jessica came up with herself (specifically the scenes central to her experiences as an African-American trying to break into theater in Manhattan). Both she, and to a point, O’Dowd are trying in vain to elevate the material, but there is only so much they can do. By the time you get to the movie’s predictable ending all you can wonder if and when William will write and star in her own movie sooner rather than later. And if that’s the silver lining of “Incredible Jessica James” we’ll take it. [C+]
“The Incredible Jessica James” was acquired by Netflix and should appear in theaters and on the streaming service later this year.