The Incredible Jessica James, is flat-out hilarious as expected with The Daily Show alum and co-host of the podcast 2 Dope Queens, Jessica Williams, in its titular role. Anyone who has seen writer/director Jim Strouse’s 2015 film, People, Places and Things, knows that this collaboration between Williams and Strouse would be electric. Together, they subvert the typical conventions of the rom-com, bringing in elements of dark comedy, tackling subjects like patriarchy, gender bias, women’s right and breakups in the modern social media age, placing an interracial couple out front and center in a way not typically seen in movies. Strouse wrote this role masterfully just for Williams. With murmurs of a TV project in the pipeline, this seems like the early stages of a dynamic creative partnership that works on so many levels. Williams delivers a memorable and pitch-perfect performance that will definitely stand out as a highlight in a predictably impeccable career.
Jessica James is a brutally honest, aspiring New York City playwright who is depressed due to a recent breakup with her ex-boyfriend Damon, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield (Straight Outta Compton, Atlanta, Get Out). She spends the first quarter of the movie playing the victim, telling her best friend Tasha (Noël Wells, Master of None), “I don’t want to be happy.” When she meets the newly-divorced Boone (Chris O'Dowd), they come up with a very millennial solution to navigate their post breakup blues together and wind up liking each other.” The Incredible Jessica James is a delightfully subversive and irreverent to the typically recognized characteristics the rom-com. Jessica James pines for her ex, but alternatively fantasizes about his life ending in bizarre and outlandish ways. She is most in her element while teaching drama to elementary aged students, a few of which also deliver memorable performances, particularly Taliyah Witaker who plays Shandra. She feels like the embodiment of Jessica’s childhood and their chemistry is organic. With her theater students, she is natural, vulnerable and honest, but in a way that is delicate and profound compared with the abrasive truth bombs she drops on the adults in her life. When she is engaged with the theater world and her students, she is willing to be vulnerable, despite her declaration in the first five minutes of the film, “the truth is all that matters to me.”
Her commitment to truth, which can be as hilarious as it is uncomfortable at times, colors Jessica James’ interactions with the people in her world and causes the audience to examine how our truth cozies up to or repels from the truth of the people in our own lives. One of the many standout scenes finds Jessica in Ohio for her sister’s baby shower at her parents' house. Her conduct during her time with her family stands in stark contrast to the unfiltered honesty she offers everyone else in her life. She recognizes her need to perform for her family, which means holding her tongue. Some of the film's most hilarious comedic moments ensue when she finds it impossible to keep lying and blurts out shocking things to several baby shower guests.
It’s like Jessica James is a superhero and her superpower is slicing through all the inanity and getting to the truth. By the film’s end, a surprising revelation drives home the message that truth, as essential as it is, is highly subjective.
Strouse is helping to change the way that black women are shown by seeing the need for them to have the space to be quirky, contrary, brilliant, sexy and grumpy and holistically multi-faceted. Strouse’s progressive casting is a key factor in the synergistic dynamic he has with Williams. Furthermore, his savvy and diverse casting situates him as a director, who may serve as a convicting force to some of his white contemporaries. Any director defending the lack of racial diversity in their work can be immediately invalidated after witnessing how Strouse is not burdened by a tacit refusal to engage black actors in meaningful ways that respect their cultural nuances and artistic range.
Strouse has found a muse in Williams, “I think of Jessica as like a Katharine Hepburn; no nonsense and I’m not going to apologize for it,” he told The Guardian back in June. No doubt, Williams will rightfully shine forth as a shooting star, a wunderkind pioneering a new way of being a black woman on-screen. But Jim Strouse may be the unsung hero. And given the genuine and humble way he presents himself in interviews, he would probably like to keep it that way, choosing instead to underscore his respect for the talent of his actors and his vision for their success in the roles he creates for them.
My prediction is that if more directors follow suit, we could see a time when there are no black movies or white movies — just films in which people are free to bring forth all of the dimensions of their true experiences. The creative partnership between Williams and Strouse feels exciting on a level more significant than just entertainment or even art. It is clear both are invested in creating something fresh and challenging and they have done just that with The Incredible Jessica James.
My only complaint with this film is that I will not be able to see it on the big screen. After a successful festival run, the film was acquired by Netflix and will be released Friday, July 28. You’ve still got time to round up your squad and throw a watch party to commiserate with Jessica James’ palpable and hysterically funny millennial angst. Williams is having a moment; a moment which I suspect will be just one of many in a constellation of stellar and memorable moments that comprise a scintillating career — one I know I’ll be watching closely.