After a four-year stint as a correspondent on The Daily Show, Jessica Williams brings her comedic sensibilities to the big screen as the title character in the Sundance Film Festival’s closing night film The Incredible Jessica James. A struggling playwright living in New York City, Jessica mitigates the steady stream of rejection letters from theater directors by teaching in an after-school program for a nonprofit organization aimed at getting younger children interested in the arts.
She’s also reeling from a breakup, and one of the film’s first scenes is a Tinder meetup that she agreed to for the sole purpose of making her ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) jealous, verbally eviscerating her unsuspecting match in the process. It’s a brilliant introduction that serves as a showcase for Williams’ skills, and sets the stage for the nonstop barrage of humor that will permeate the rest of the film.
Succumbing to pressure from her best friend, Jessica agrees to a blind date with Boone (Chris O’Dowd), a recently divorced thirtysomething schlub with whom she shares almost nothing in common. Boone’s affable nature is the polar opposite of Jessica’s swaggering confidence and sometimes icy exterior, and yet a strange sort of kinship develops as they bond over their mutual heartbreak and agree to follow each other’s exes on social media and report back when any major life events transpire. It’s a seemingly ill-advised arrangement, but in reality is just an excuse to spend more time together without either party being forced to admit the budding attraction that will inevitably blossom into something else.
Directed by Jim Strouse, who wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for Williams, The Incredible Jessica James follows a number of predictable beats straight out of the indie rom-com playbook. There are a handful of other developments, including Jessica’s wavering feelings about her ex, a visit to her hometown for her sister’s baby shower and her attempts to intervene when her most talented student pulls out of a weekend writer’s retreat due to a complicated situation at home. Some of these threads are less developed that others, but through it all Williams remains charming, funny and captivating.
Comparisons will no doubt be made to Trainwreck, another film about a smart, funny woman getting her life together, but The Incredible Jessica James eschews raunch and vulgarity in favor of a smarter, more grounded approach to the material. On the surface, the film may seem like little more than typical indie fare, but Williams’ force-of-nature performance, so vibrant and full of energy, elevates it to something else entirely and promises many great things to come.