Jessica Williams. Remember the name.
After causing a flurry at Sundance – both Utah and London – Jim Strause’s comedy drama The Incredible Jessica James has arrived on Netflix. The streamer nabbed the rights before the film was shown at Sundance at the start of the year – which immediately gets your hopes up.
And you can see why Netflix went for it. A tale of modern dating, lost love and the arts scene in New York, it’s also a slightly different take on the usual rom-com. With the release in cinemas of The Big Sick, it must be the week for romantic comedies with a twist.
The Jessica James (Jessica Williams) of the title is an aspiring playwright who’s going through a break-up, one that she simply can’t get out of her head. She’s started dating again – or, at least, she’s giving it a try – and she’s set up on a blind date with Boone (Chris O’Dowd) who’s recovering from splitting with his wife. After a less than promising start, they find they get on well and hatch a plan to follow their respective exes on social media. Of course, they also discover that, as they’re still trying to sort out their feelings, they’re becoming closer at the same time.
Which is probably the most predictable part of the story. That aside, it approaches the perils of modern dating with humour and energy, opening with a disastrous date scenario which is deliciously sharp in its writing and performance. The irony, as we discover, is that while Jessica is rejecting her dates for all kinds of reasons – the main one being that none of them live up to her memory of her ex – she’s being rejected by publishers almost as frequently. In truth, she’s not as feisty or as confident as she makes out.
This is a sparkling breakout performance from Jessica Williams, who commands the screen with her physical presence, her personality and sheer gusto. A night out with her would be great fun – if you lived up to her standards – and the film is fun as well. She’s helped by a crisp script and solid direction from Strause, and an eminently likeable leading man in O’Dowd. It’s a funny and sparky on-screen partnership.
When a film describes its main character in such glowing terms, it’s coming perilously close to setting itself up to fail. Unless it’s being ironic, of course. Not here, though, because Jessica defies the clichés that can go hand in hand with her honesty and directness. She’s an individual, with a striking personal style – to the outside world at least.
And she’s such a powerful character that it throws the film off balance: admittedly, not by much, but enough to make you feel you should have seen more of the supporting characters, especially when they’re played by likes of Lakeith Stanfield and Taliyah Whitaker (her ex and her best friend respectively). But the film is Jessica’s – James and Williams – and she carries it off with style.
The Incredible Jessica James is on Netflix now.