Writer-director Jim Strouse has been a Park City mainstay for many years, constantly delivering kind, nuanced pieces of work concerning modest people doing their best to figure themselves out. With The Incredible Jessica James, Strouse casts the uber-talented Jessica Williams as the titular character, an aspiring playwright getting over a bad break-up.
Hooked up on a blind date of sorts with Boone (Chris O’Dowd), the two barrel through an awkward dinner by being brutally honest with one another. The result is a one-night stand that doesn’t appear to have much staying power. Jessica’s still stress-dreaming about her ex Damon (Lakeith Stanfield) and Boone is coming out of a recent divorce.
Williams stood out from the pack on The Daily Show for a brief period of time, delivering biting pieces that were smart and fresh. She followed this with a nice turn in Strouse’s last film People Places Things, before launching the very-popular “2 Dopes Queens” podcast. This is very clearly her show here, and she does well with it. Williams is a charming presence with a natural charisma that works.
Unfortunately, the narrative Strouse surrounds her in feels narrow-minded. We’re in New York City, where Jessica teaches a children’s theater workshop while getting her work rejected for every theater grant imaginable. Boone, with a grin, asks how she can possibly pay her rent. He, after all, doesn’t have that problem, because he invented an app. Strouse and company love this city and the people therein, and love to comment on the gradual, economic un-liveability of the place. And while there is a welcome awareness to the pros and cons of a modern metropolitan life, there is an equally unwelcome distaste for those who live a suburban life.
In one particular scene, Jessica travels back home to Ohio (where “they make weirdos,” she says) for her sister’s baby shower. She’s met by a loving mother and a tentative step-dad, and then is asked by her sister to change out of her purple jumpsuit into a dress instead, a request Jessica scoffs at but complies with. Later on, she judges a family friend for their lack of knowledge about the New York City theater scene and criticizes the other guests at the shower for being beholden to “the system.” That night, she watches her family in disgust as they enjoy a romantic comedy. How lowbrow!
“You’re kind of an annoying person, aren’t you?” a character asks Jessica at one point. Indeed she is. It’s an unlike-ability addressed throughout but without much consequence. Strouse wants to explore the complexities of somebody who’s chasing their dreams, mostly blind to the wreckage they might make around them, and Williams finds the layers in the character. But the message remains far more muddled than her performance. The idea is to reach for the sky and settle for nothing less, especially a mundane life in Middle America. It’s certainly more complicated than that, but The Incredible Jessica James fails to fill it out.
The Incredible Jessica James premiered at Sundance Film Festival and hits Netflix on July 28.