The Incredible Jessica James: Confidence Woman, by David Bax
In pretty much every romantic comedy, there’s the role of the female lead’s best friend. She’s a sounding board and a support system but is ultimately secondary to the primary pair. Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James jumbles up the ingredients. It has a singular star (Jessica Williams as Jessica James) instead of being a two hander, then it has a best friend (Noël Wells as Tasha) and, finally, the love interest (Chris O’Dowd as Boone). This new romance may be a big thing going on in Jessica’s life at the moment but there’s never any doubt that her friendship, her job and her dreams come first and aren’t about to be derailed, no matter how charming O’Dowd is. It’s a very realistic portrayal of modern urban dating that manages to feel invigoratingly fresh because of the company it keeps within its genre.
That’s not to say that, outside of her love life, everything is going great for Jessica. Despite her abundant charisma and an impressive college degree, her attempts as a playwright to get her work produced have resulted in nothing but a wall of rejection letters (literally; she tapes them up as a kind of inspiration). In the meantime, she pays her bills by teaching drama to low-income kids for a non-profit organization.
On her first date with Boone, Jessica states, “Honesty is like the only thing that matters to me.” By all outward appearances, this is indeed her guiding doctrine. She’s unrelentingly straightforward with others and seems to have no dial on her personality, being essentially the same person whether she’s interacting with her students, their parents or her suburban sister’s humdrum friends. Of course, nothing is that simple. Later, when she admits to Boone, “I’m, like, insecure about everything,” he replies, “You hide it well.”
The Incredible Jessica James is, at its core, a fake-it-till-you-make-it story about a woman whom casual onlookers might perceive as the most confident person in any given room actually uncovering her own sense of self-confidence. When she tells the kids in class that this is their “one and only life,” we can’t help but wonder if she’s even aware how far short of that philosophy she’s falling. She acts as if she’s embracing every moment yet dwells constantly on her past and her perceived shortcomings. Jessica is blindly unable to practice what she preaches but, largely thanks to Williams’ performance, we want her to badly.
Strouse largely stays out of his lead actor’s way, allowing her to set the pace. He does have a little fun, though, with some low-key, Walter Mitty-style daydreams, mostly involving Jessica’s frustratingly stable ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) in various states of desperation. He also stages an overt homage to The Graduate, recreating the airport moving walkway profile shot when Jessica makes a brief trip home to visit her parents. Intentionally or not, Williams is also wearing the same color jacket in the shot as Pam Grier did in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown when they did their own tribute, perhaps making this a double reference.
Directorial flourishes aside, it’s hard to imagine this as anything other than Jessica Williams’ movie. As written, the movie has feminist themes ranging from the macro (subverting the patriarchy) to the micro (shaming a subway “manspreader”). But Williams’ voracious and unapologetically non-demure performance brings the subtext to the surface. She takes over, defining herself as a star in her first lead role. The Incredible Jessica James is a good movie but it’s lucky to have her.