Sundance 2017 Review: THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES

This star-making Jessica Williams vehicle will make your heart sing.

The romantic comedy seems one of the more dire genres to attempt. Veer in the direction of snark or irony and it feels hackneyed, steer in the other direction and you’ve got something saccharine or cloying. By definition the work has to be both romantic and comedic, and given that this seems a paradoxical task there really only are a handful of films that have truly done it right.

The key for it to work is to empathize with the affection that the film’s characters have for the protagonist. For if you don’t as an audience member understand why people are foolishly in love with the lead then the film is lost. Fall in love with the lead and most of your work is done.

Luckily, it’s easy to see why anyone would fall for Jessica Williams. Beautiful, charming and with a razor sharp wit, she’s magnetic on screen and a veritable star in the making. It’s this quality that led director Jim Strouse (People, Places, Things) to write another part for her after she stole every scene in his previous film. With The Incredible Jessica James crafted for her unique voice, it couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

Story-wise the film’s quite conventional – a 20-something woman isn’t quite over her ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) so she connives to make him feel slightly guilty for moving on. With a push from her quirky best friend (Noël Wells) she finds herself meeting another sarcastic soul (Chris O’Dowd) who equally has issues getting over his previous relationship. Dramedy ensues, romance flourishes and complications occur.

Yet despite the purposely archetypical structure Williams and the rest of the ensemble find space to soar. Strouse’s gift is to take this deceptively simple structure and make it feel fresh with the incorporation of William’s quirks. Her tendency to truncate (ie., “penetraish” instead of “penetrate”) is charming rather than obnoxious, making her mix of bravado and self-deprecation the focus of the film’s tone.

Wells and O’Dowd are terrific, each injecting their own spirit into the film and elevating their stock characters to three dimensions. Even though Standfield appears sporadically, his dream-like appearances provide some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Like People, Places, Things this is also the story of a struggling artist. As a struggling playwright Jessica places her rejection letters on her wall, forming a kind of failure sculpture. She parses the text for even a modicum of good news or at least an indication that her work was read before it was dismissed. She spends her time teaching young kids dramaturgy and instilling a love of theatre, something that doesn’t always take. These moments should be completely awful and manipulative yet thanks to her perfectly measured performance and some strong contributions by the young child actors, the scenes are some of the film's most effective.

The central lesson is powerful despite its seeming banality – you want to be a writer, then write, if you want to be in love, then love someone – yet it all seems to come together in supremely effective ways. There’s seriousness to the silliness and comedy in the pain, and this mishmash of impulses gives the work an indelible charm.

From the opening title sequence where Jessica’s dancing abandon creates a more intimate version of La La Land’s highway number, through to the closing culmination of the romantic arc, The Incredible Jessica James is a true delight. The hyperbole of the title actually serves the film well - as a showcase for the incredible Jessica Williams, and as a refreshing take on an often tired genre, Strouse’s latest treat is one of those films that will make your heart sing.

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