D: Jim Strouse / 84m
Cast: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noël Wells, Taliyah Whitaker
Despite having their name plastered all over the advertising, potential viewers of The Incredible Jessica James can rest easy – this is not a Netflix original. Instead it’s a movie that Netflix picked up for distribution after it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With that near miss taken care of, it’s unsurprising to learn that the latest from the writer/director of People Places Things (2015) is on a par with that movie, and head and shoulders above many other so-called romantic comedies released this year. Shot through with Strouse’s gift for natural-sounding dialogue, the movie brings together two characters who are trying hard to deal with the fallout from relationships that have recently ended. How good are they at doing this? Does the phrase “cyber stalking” give you a clue?
The title character, Jessica James (Williams), has split up from her boyfriend, Damon (Stanfield). She’s not sure how it happened, but she is sure she still has feelings for him. Well, confused feelings, as she arranges dates with guys on Tinder and meets them in places where she knows she’s likely to bump into Damon, just so she can tell him how well she’s doing without him (she also continues to follow him on social media). Three and a half months have passed since their relationship ended, and while it seems Damon has moved on, Jessica is so critical of anyone else she meets that she might as well not bother. Then her friend, Tasha (Wells), suggests Jessica go on a blind date with someone she knows called Boone (O’Dowd). Boone is eight months divorced, and is prone to following his ex’s Instagram account, as well as hanging around outside the apartment she shares with her new partner. Their date doesn’t go too well at first, but once they agree to talk honestly about their previous relationships, the pair find themselves hitting it off. So well, in fact, that they end up spending the night together.
The rest is almost entirely predictable, and follows such a standard arc that the average viewer could probably describe it in their sleep. But in amongst the familiar tropes and romantic ups and downs, Strouse weaves a charming tale of burgeoning love that is anything but formulaic, and which owes a lot of its success to Strouse’s gifts as a writer, and the easy way in which he translates his screenplay into well structured yet seemingly carefree incidents. We follow Jessica as she navigates this new friendship with Boone, as well as teaching at a children’s theatre workshop, and trying to get her work as a playwright recognised by a theatre company. She’s smart, she’s intelligent, she’s sexy, she’s trying hard not to be a slave to her emotions, and she’s taking it all one step at a time. Two things stop her from moving forward with confidence or the appropriate speed: her mixed feelings for Damon, and Boone’s mixed feelings for his ex, Mandy Moore (not the singer/actress).
Boone is plagued by similar doubts, but of the two of them he seems to be the more prepared to commit to Jessica and forge a new relationship. Inevitably there’s a stumbling block, a situation that pulls them apart before they’re reunited at the end, but it’s all done with an honesty and a simplicity that is in many ways, quite refreshing to witness. Strouse uses dialogue as a way of exploring the characters’ emotional needs, and to draw out small but effective contributions to the way in which both of them deal with disappointment and pain, and being hurt. They’re both vulnerable people, determined to be honest with each other as a relationship “best policy” and to protect themselves, and Strouse is on fine form when it’s just the two of them, happily tiptoe-ing through the minefield of a new romance and largely unafraid of losing a metaphorical limb.
Strouse is helped immensely by relaxed, detailed performances by Williams and O’Dowd, a romantic “odd couple” you probably wouldn’t have put together in a million years. And yet, there’s a definite chemistry there (if not a completely convincing physical one; when they kiss it’s like watching two people trying it out for the first time and getting the basic idea from a manual). Williams has a very likeable screen presence, and she uses her expressive features and comic timing to very good effect. Those viewers who only know her from US TV’s The Daily Show (where she’s played roles as varied as Abraham Lincoln and Lorena Bobbitt), may well be surprised by the way in which she handles the more serious elements of Strouse’s script, but when she is called upon to jettison the comedy and hit up the drama, you can see just what an all-rounder she really is. She’s in good company with O’Dowd, who, no matter what movie he appears in, is pretty much the definition of relaxed and easy-going. He’s proven his range on many occasions, and though Boone is something of a supporting character, O’Dowd plays him as if he’s integral to the whole movie, and makes him both inherently credible and hugely sympathetic; you want Boone to find happiness with Jessica (and vice versa).
Strouse, who’s work as a writer/director seems to get better and better with every movie, handles a number of subplots with aplomb as well, gaining extra mileage from the situations his romantic duo find themselves in when they’re not together. Jessica tries to persuade the mother of one of her pupils of the importance of the class itself, while Boone is confronted by his ex-wife’s new partner and only barely survives the encounter without sounding like a complete ass. Strouse isn’t afraid as well to make Jessica initially unsympathetic, with her treatment of potential suitors brought into question by her abrupt manners and rude dissemination of why she doesn’t want to be there. But as she begins to find love with Boone, Jessica mellows and allows herself to trust a lot more, and the character blossoms as a result. Again, it’s all held together by the quality of Strouse’s writing, and the quality of Williams’ and O’Dowd’s portrayals, and in the end, the movie ends up being a more than pleasant way of spending eighty-four minutes, and one that makes you wonder just what kind of a life the pair will have long after the credits roll.
Rating: 8/10 – somewhat of a surprise (though it shouldn’t be given Strouse’s involvement), The Incredible Jessica James is a sure-fire winner that doesn’t have a lot to shout about on the surface (in terms of originality), but which is deceptively graceful below it; a low-key experience that rewards dramatically and comedically, this is a movie that works to its strengths throughout, and in doing so, stakes a claim to being one of the most intelligent and pleasurable romantic comedies of the year.