Writer-director Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James plays as little more than a star vehicle, with all the slightness that implies. Though Strouse reportedly based his screenplay on his own difficulties making a name for himself as a playwright early in his career, the film’s look into the life of struggling artist Jessica James (Jessica Williams) feels familiar at best. Throughout, Strouse’s marginal insights are subsumed by a threadbare narrative and predictable romantic-comedy plotting.
Nonetheless, Williams is so freshly quick-witted and funny that she elevates the film, punching it up in the same way Jessica jubilantly sashays through her apartment in the opening title sequence. In some ways, the film’s chasm between Williams’s star wattage and the mundane material surrounding the actress could be seen as reflective of Jessica herself: a woman whose outward displays of sassy assertiveness masks a host of insecurities.
Jessica’s self-assured side comes through loud and clear right in The Incredible Jessica James’s first scene, in which she verbally dresses down her Tinder date, calling him out on what she views as his hypocrisy in trying to go through the motions of looking for a serious relationship when his messages suggested he just wanted to hook up. And yet, Williams also projects the sense of a character wielding this no-nonsense persona as a defense mechanism, using a welter of brutal honesty to shield her vulnerabilities. This is made especially clear when, on the date, she brings up how she hasn’t gotten over her recent breakup with Damon (Lakeith Stanfield).
As a character study, the film generates a lot of dramatic mileage out of the tension between Jessica’s hilariously frank demeanor toward others and her professional and personal doubts. Williams is game to allow Jessica to occasionally come off as too blunt and needy in order to get at the woman’s complications. Jessica finds a match in Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who’s receptive to her brand of straight talk, and who’s himself still pining for an ex when they meet on a date set up by Jessica’s best friend, Tasha (Noël Wells).
One wishes for a bit more depth regarding Jessica’s professional struggles: Though the character expresses her passion for playwriting on multiple occasions, Strouse never bothers to give us a sense of what drew her to theater. And in a subplot in which Jessica tries to help a promising young student in her playwriting class, and despite the student’s mother’s disinterest in encouraging her daughter’s budding artistic side, Strouse comes close to needlessly sanctifying his main character. Williams doesn’t need such worshipful adulation to make an indelible impression. She’s enough of a magnetic presence on her own, conveying Jessica’s richly complex inner life while the young woman takes no bullshit from those around her, without the director feeling the need to prop her up on a pedestal.