The Incredible Jessica James is ostensibly a romantic comedy, loosely centered on a nascent relationship between its titular star, played by stand-up comedian and former The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, and a recent divorcee played by Chris O’Dowd. But what it actually is is a hangout film, that Tarantino-coined term for movies whose primary appeal is the opportunity to spend time in the presence of likable, compelling characters, no matter the action going on around them.
The term is often relegated to the realm of ensemble films (Dazed and Confused being the go-to example), but in the case of this movie, it’s more of a one-on-one hang, between the viewer and one Jessica James, a struggling New York playwright who’s trying to get past a recent breakup.
On paper, that characterization sounds entirely unremarkable — oh boy, another Sundance darling about a struggling and/or broken-hearted New York artist! But in Williams’s hands, Jessica James becomes a diamond-sharp protagonist, and the only defining feature of an otherwise formless movie.
The Incredible Jessica James is powered by one extremely charismatic performance, and not much else
Thankfully, The Incredible Jessica James seems to know where its strengths lie, and doesn’t attempt to expand beyond its protagonist’s immediate perspective. Not only does this prevent the svelte 85-minute movie from overstaying its welcome (something many modern comedies could stand to emulate), but it keeps the focus on Williams, who is pretty much the only thing animating writer-director James Strouse’s otherwise stagnant tale of personal and professional growth.
Okay, in fairness, Jessica James has some other bright spots in its cast, particularly O’Dowd, doing his familiar but effective hangdog-paramour thing, and Lakeith Stanfield as Jessica’s ex, who shows up mostly in fantasy/dream sequences as a sort of avatar of Jessica’s subconscious. But they feel like accessories to the main event that is Jessica James, a funny and forthright ball of confidence who seems to exist in perpetual limbo between cynicism and optimism.
Jessica’s a playwright who’s never had any of her work produced in New York, a bleak track record that doesn’t stop her from finding comfort in a personalized rejection letter, instead of the standard form letter, or from encouraging young kids to love theater via her work with a nonprofit. Nor does she let her failed relationship with Stanfield’s Damon, or a subsequent string of cringe-y Tinder dates/booty calls, deter her from saying yes to a seemingly ill-advised setup with O’Dowd’s Boone.
Boone is an app developer who seemingly couldn’t have less in common with Jessica. And when their terrible first date improbably leads to something more, there’s the sense that it’s less the result of an inextinguishable spark between the pair, and more just another example of Jessica’s commitment to keep barreling ahead in life, to hell with whatever obstacles she may encounter along the way.
Jessica’s confidence in the face of a world that seems determined to beat her down is her defining characteristic, and Williams conveys it beautifully in her performance. Williams’s forthrightness and poise in the role make Jessica’s penchant for brutal honesty feel bold and refreshing, rather than like a mean-spirited defense mechanism, and her standup-honed comedic timing brings life to otherwise stale interactions (particularly those between Jessica and her young students). Jessica isn’t invulnerable, nor is she without flaws, but she’s so damn assured of herself that it’s a pleasure just to witness her radiance, to imagine living a life with so little shame or artifice.
The problem is that Jessica James, and by extension Jessica James, doesn’t have a distinctive arc. Things are sort of tough for Jessica, then they’re sort of not — there’s no development or build to give the movie shape. It’s more a series of vignettes charting a loose course toward a conclusion that seems designed to subvert expectations, but fails to do so because the movie doesn’t really do much to establish those expectations in the first place. The story lopes along from one funny and/or touching interaction to the next, but Jessica remains more or less unchanged throughout. This gives the sense that her getting past the struggles she’s facing is less a matter of her changing as a person, and more a matter of her simply waiting things out until time, and perhaps a little good luck, brings closure.
That very well may be the point: A lot of life’s problems do tend to just resolve themselves in time, particularly heartbreak, and it’s certainly possible to find success without fundamentally changing as a person. And why would someone as obviously incredible as Jessica James need to change, anyway? Sometimes life just sort of happens, it’s not always a series of life-defining incidents — surely there’s something to be said for a story that seems to recognize that?
And there is something to be said for it: For all its shapelessness, The Incredible Jessica James is often a damn good hang, an excuse to spend some time with a character far more compelling than the movie she anchors. But that very quality is also what makes The Incredible Jessica James far less compelling and memorable than its title character and Williams herself.