Director: Jim Strouse
Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd
Watch The Incredible Jessica James online in the UK: Netflix UK
“I’m tall. I’m pretty. I’m smart. Obviously, I will have many great loves in my life.” That’s Jessica James in Netflix’s new original film, The Incredible Jessica James. And spoiler alert: she really is.
She’s an aspiring playwright in New York, which means she’s never had anything performed. Rather, she spends her days doing workshops with young kids, encouraging them to embrace the arts and express themselves. It’s something she needs no encouragement to do: she bursts into every scene of the film (and she’s in pretty much all of them), unafraid to speak her mind or put others in their place. We open the film with her dancing through her flat, her enthusiastic gestures pushing around the colourful titles – and she goes through the rest of life with the same exuberant lack of concern about what other people might think.
That attitude sees her agree to a blind date with a divorced bloke who got rich off an app – Boone, played by Chris O’Dowd. Their first date is awkward and full of disinterested insults, but somehow, they still end up seeing each other again – an unlikely romance that sounds like it’s right out of the Unlikely Romance 101 book. Chris O’Dowd, as you’d expect, is effortlessly charming, playing the sad loser with a sad loser schtick that is oddly sincere. And it’s that sincerity that makes the whole thing work: their relationship should be a pile of cliches, but both leads are so messily honest in their performances that every quirky left-turn feels genuine, rather than scripted.
Director Jim Strouse wrote the film for Williams specifically, and Jessica Williams jumps at the chance to show all the skills she’s got. She’s amazingly funny, moving, stylish and breathlessly chaotic, seizing the opportunity to leap from her work on The Daily Show to the big screen.
So fierce and infectious is her presence that it bleeds into every aspect of the film. Strouse uses her inner anguish over her ex as a springboard for some inspired imaginary sequences between them, which jump from suicidal confrontations to surreal non-reunion reunions. There’s a sense throughout that the whole thing is being dictated by her personality and feelings, in a way that recalls Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha or Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. They all do that rare thing that shouldn’t be rare at all: present us with a woman who’s nuanced, complicated and totally real, a female character who is strong without needing to punch people and three-dimensional enough to have dreams that don’t revolve around a bloke.
The result is hilarious, sad, truthful and gorgeously idiosyncratic, a character-driven gem that ranks among the most enjoyable films you’ll see in 2017. Thank goodness it’s being released by Netflix, so everyone can enjoy and admire this rude, opinionated, wonderful role model – as a showcase for Jessica Williams, this is perfect. As a film about someone who’s anything but, it’s even better.
The Incredible Jessica James is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.