Release Date: July 28 2017 (Netflix)
Director: James C. Strouse
Runtime: 83 minutes
Jessica Williams made a splash on The Daily Show in 2012 by bringing a raw energy that had been missing since George W. Bush left office. For a show that had lost its primary raison-d’être, she was a breath of fresh air, and within months we knew that the 22-year-old was going to be a presence in the comedy scene for a long time.
But then Jon Stewart left The Daily Show; she wasn’t interested in being his replacement; and it has been over a year since we’ve seen Jessica Williams on screen. Finally though, with The Incredible Jessica James on Netflix, we have Williams’ return in her first big acting role, and I’m glad to report that both she and the film are quite good.
Williams plays Jessica James, a struggling New York City playwright who has started dating again after a long relationship. On a blind date she meets Boone (Chris O’Dowd) who is as disarmingly charming as ever. James also teaches drama to poor kids in Hell’s Kitchen, trying to inspire confidence and creativity in children who don’t have much.
Williams proves here that she has the chops for serious film acting, both comedic and dramatic. Her relationships with O’Dowd; as well as her best friend, Tasha (Noel Wells); and ex-boyfriend, Damon (Lakeith Stanfield), feel lived in, providing desperately needed depth for the 83-minute film. And plenty of moments fill in those details that make her more than a sitcom character.
Midway through the film, James returns to her parents’ home in Ohio for her sister’s baby shower, and we see how her politics are informed by – but don’t totally mesh with – her middle-class upbringing. Sex scenes with O’Dowd feel awkward, sweet and, most of all, earned. The drama classes with her students speak to the most emotionally powerful parts of drama and improv. In every scene Williams lends an introspective realism that elevates the content to compelling heights.
If there’s one complaint I have with Williams’ performance it’s that she’s falling into the same pitfalls as other contemporary comedy stars. The film is sometimes more interested in her doing whatever random shit comes to mind than constructing fully compelling scenes and jokes. When the film is developing characters (particularly in scenes between Williams and O’Dowd), the comedy is ripe and charming. When she’s on her own, it feels like something between an overly ambitious audition tape and someone being silly in front of their best friends.
Neither of these things are particularly awful; the rest of the film just tells us we can expect more. Part of the problem here is that the aesthetic doesn’t do much to calm down Williams’ infectious personality. From Jack Black to Amy Poehler to Will Ferrell and now Jessica Williams, great comedic talents desperately need to be tampered by collaborators that can channel their energy into something more than an extended SNL skit. If Williams can find those artists to work with, I think we have a generational talent to look forward to.