Sometimes critics and filmmakers agree. We suggested, in our 2015 review of People Places Things, that writer-director James Strouse should please give more screen time to supporting actor Jessica Williams. Now, in his new rom-com for Netflix, The Incredible Jessica James, he turns the camera directly at the former Daily Show correspondent. It should be satisfying to see Williams lead as Jessica James in a light romance, her character connecting with that of costar Chris O’Dowd through ping-ponging one-liners. But Strouse drops the ball with this meandering, flat film that shows few signs that he effectively coached his actors, as they rush to recite their dialogue.
Please don’t misread me: Williams deserves to be the multidimensional lead in a rom-com. And despite the apparent lack of direction in this film, she and O’Dowd still get an occasional crackle of chemistry. Jessica asks for complete honesty on their first date, and Boone (O’Dowd) obliges. “I’m also very good at cunnilingus,” he boasts, to which the confident Jessica responds with uncharacteristic goo-goo eyes and “That’s very good to know.”
But rarely, if ever, does Strouse support the budding romance with any choice that would suggest this is an amorous story — an issue I also had with People Places Things. The actors are awash in harsh light, even in supposedly low-lit restaurants, suggesting the only reasoning behind Strouse’s lighting schematics was making sure we could see people’s faces. The color is flat and drab without a hint of mood, looking like the whole film was shot on a Canon 5D someone had lying around. And the music that clicks in whenever Jessica and Boone get intimate is a twee track that might have been sourced from a a royalty-free website. It’s almost as though Strouse is leaving these integral elements to chance rather than using every tool he has available to build his story. Hell, the story he’s telling isn’t even all that clear.
We’re told Jessica only cares about theater and making it as a playwright. She collects rejection notes from theaters and fellowship competitions and pastes them on her wall (a nice, realistic detail). And she has an ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) she’s trying to get over. But we’re never shown the stakes — what she’s working toward in her career or how in love she was with her ex. For all the times Jessica says, “Theater is like the only thing I care about,” she doesn’t seem to spend much time sending out her own plays or going to see others. Also, I didn’t think it was possible for Stanfield to be unfunny in anything on screen, but here we are. What a waste.
The only scene that convinced me Strouse wasn’t completely asleep at the wheel comes when Jessica returns home to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower. The director focuses on oddball New York artist Jessica, at sea in a gaggle of Midwestern women delicately forking cake into their mouths and opening pink presents. He backgrounds the sequence with a speed-metal track, which emphasizes both how totally bland these people are and how disconnected Jessica is from her Ohio roots. If Strouse had put that much care into the rest of the film, this might be a worthy vehicle for Williams to become a new and much-needed update of what the movies are sorely missing right now: a Meg Ryan-like rom-com lead.