Jessica Williams fills up a space like the glow of a megawatt bulb. The former Daily Show correspondent has been gifted the lead in Netflix’s demi-eponymous The Incredible Jessica James, a romantic comedy that writer-director Jim Strouse has assembled in her honor like a temple to Helios. It’s Williams’ first real movie role (cameos like Jamaican Damsel, Coffee Shop Crier, and African-American Spa Worker don’t count) and she transitions from TV to film at light-speed, glorying in the extra room. The 6-foot-tall comedian, a tornado of tie-dyed denim and gorgeous, charm-decorated dreads, grooves across the screen with her arms flung open as if she’s ready to fly.
Look out if you’re another actor in the scene. Her newly single New York playwright Jessica James wants to do all the talking, preferably about herself, with breaks only to applaud her brave honesty. “I’m standing in my own truth,” she insists to best friend Tasha (Noël Wells) when Jessica’s narcissism risks getting them both fired from a catering gig. More like she’s spraying her truth on bystanders, most of whom are too awed to duck, from her still-raw ex Damon (the great Lakeith Stanfield, this generation’s James Dean) to the neighbor whose laundry she throws in the stairwell just because the flying fabric fit her dance-party-of-one.
Jessica’s boorishness shows how hard Strouse tried to write his star a complicated part. But Williams is so charismatic, her character’s rudeness barely registers. Instead, the actress has to show Jessica recognizing her faults before we do. Two beats after she tosses the stranger’s clothes, Williams grimaces. Whoops. And right after she insults Damon, Williams glances down. The mean quips make her electric. The regret makes her human. Williams’ skill at both makes her a serious talent.
How do you make a rom com when there’s not enough oxygen for two people? By pairing matter with anti-matter and setting Jessica up with her opposite: a soft-spoken, middle-aged Irish divorcee named Boone (Chris O’Dowd). They’re a bizarre match. She works for a non-profit kids theater. He invents apps. She’s in Bushwick. He’s spying on his ex-wife’s posh Manhattan digs. She karaokes. He windsurfs. The script parses every clash down to coffee versus tea, leaving only their most visible difference, skin color, unmentioned. (The jokes spring from their personalities, not ’90s stand-up cliches.)
All Jessica and Boone have in common are their awful recent break-ups and their mutual astonishment that they’re still in the same room. On their blind meet-up, Jessica tells Boone that he reminds her Damon—technically, “how much of him you’re not.” Ouch. But Boone doesn’t take the date, and by extension, the diss, seriously. “Cool,” he shrugs. Or really, “Coougglllhh,” the sound of a spirit squeezing out of a Dublin grave and wandering off to haunt someone else.
O’Dowd hasn’t had a role this good since his sweetheart cop chased Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. He’s made to woo diamond-sharp women—his humor curls around to show them off like a ring. Where Williams’ Jessica never thinks before she talks, he pauses between each word. His delivery is so hesitant, he seems to invent punchlines on the spot. O’Dowd’s ambling charm is a credit to Strouse’s direction, but I wouldn’t blame the director if he grumbled it might make audiences mistake his terrific zingers for improv.
Bad romantic comedies busy themselves inventing excuses to keep their couple apart. Good ones focus on where their couple connects. In The Incredible Jessica James, the question isn’t just where, but why bother? Especially when Boone sums up their first date as, “interesting, like, in an anthropological way.” But Boone and Jessica take each other so trivially that they allow themselves to get honest—not just Jessica’s navel-gazing rants, but real honesty, the kind she can’t even have with her midwestern family, a house of normals who look at her like a space alien that claims to come from their planet.
Strouse goes for the easy joke when Jessica flies home to Ohio for her younger sister’s baby shower with doom metal thundering over shots of chocolate-filled diapers. Yet, he’s making a quieter point. Jessica doesn’t belong here. Even when she tries to blend, allowing her sister to pick her clothes and smooth over her death-to-the-patriarchy quips, she has to build her own life far away from here. In the sequence’s last scene, Jessica’s family crowds onto a couch to watch a Hallmark movie. She can’t squeeze in. Instead, Jessica stands behind the snugglers in the darkness, torn between being glad she doesn’t fit, and wondering how much easier life would be if she could. After a weekend in suburbia, you get why she gives Boone another go.
“I think it’s really dangerous to seek personal fulfillment through romantic relationships,” commands Jessica in her opening scene. Still, the movie wants her to have love, and everything else too. Strouse can’t resist giving his leading lady everything she wants: a star-making role in a screenplay that ends like a burst of confetti. He’s in such a hurry to get there that the romance is rushed and the secondary subplots pass by like blurs. Were we supposed to care about her students’ big recital? About Tasha’s acting career? As compelling as Williams is, that hollowness makes The Incredible Jessica James feel less like a meal and more like an aperitif to get us hungry for what she and Strouse whip up next. They know you’ll be there. As Jessica grins, “I’m frigging dope!”
The Incredible Jessica James will be released on Netflix on July 28.