SFIFF60: “The Incredible Jessica James” Thrums with Theater of the Heart

Directed and Written by: Jim Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, Noël Wells
Produced by: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Executive Produced by: Jessica Williams, Kerri Hundley
Music by: Keegan DeWitt
Cinematography by: Sean McElwee
Edited by: Jesse Gordon, Mollie Goldstein
Closing Night Film of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Official Selection of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival


If you respond strongly to dialogue-driven independent films, a new release by the writer/director Jim Strouse is a Big Event in the same vein as a forthcoming Terrence Malick project.

Strouse, thankfully, is slightly more productive, with three features (and a couple other loose projects, like a tantalizing upcoming collaboration with Mia Lidofsky) since his emergence as a filmmaker with the Golden Globe-nominated Grace is Gone in 2007. Anyone keeping track of the films since has noted a shift in tone from tragic melancholy to wry, heavy-hearted, and sometimes loopy comedy, culminating in 2015 with the zippy, hyper-intelligent People, Places, Things.

When I interviewed Strouse in 2015 following that film’s World Premiere at Sundance, he described how his script (and its many jokes) had been influenced by the work of visionary contemporary playwrights like Will Eno and Annie Baker. One of the characters, played by Michael Chernus – a Baker regular – was, in fact, a monologist of dramatic heft. But People, Places, Things centered primarily on Jemaine Clement’s downbeat cartoonist, Will, and his experiences in the wake of an unexpected breakup with Charlie (played by Stephanie Allynne.) The monologist was, primarily, a punching bag, and Strouse’s powerful theatrical inclinations took a backseat to Will’s soulful ruminations on fatherhood and romance.

So much for that.

From within the world of modern playwriting, Strouse has constructed perhaps his warmest and most joyful film yet with The Incredible Jessica James. Simultaneously a whip-smart romantic comedy of significant commercial potential and the first star vehicle for Jessica Williams (who should have her impending Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical polished for life at cost to the distributor), Netflix was damn clever to pick up the film after its World Premiere at Sundance last January. Like all of Strouse’s work, it is bound to be discovered with awe when the streaming service releases it this June, audiences marveling at the danger of something so tender-hearted and idiosyncratic slipping under the radar.

Williams, who appeared in PPT and currently co-hosts the 2 Dope Queens podcast, plays the title James (in every Strouse film, there’s likely to be a “James,” a “John,” or even a “Lonesome Jim”), a propulsive emerging playwright with a penchant for wisecracks. James is frank and wounded – a devastating combination for the wide-eyed Tinder chumps who try to “bone” her – after breaking up with her slick boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield, casually beautiful in yet another unexpected role).

So a colleague (Noël Wells, too indispensable to be used so briefly as here) sets her up with a divorced acquaintance, Boone, played by Chris O’Dowd with the winsome opennes of a Chris O’Dowd-type charmer.

Skeletal as that description may seem, it is Strouse’s habit to gird his scripts with the kinds of individualized specificity more common in dramatic character studies, yet which many independent comedies fail to include at cost to the attentive viewer.

Consider, for instance, the recurring motif in films like 500 Days of Summer or Garden State wherein one romantic lead is pleasantly shocked to learn that they share a favored rock band with their love interest. I find this to be one of the most irritating and derivative trends in modern comedy, which makes it all the more pleasurable when The Incredible Jessica James introduces its character’s traits without treating them as sexualized quirks.

In Jessica James’s case, her affection for live theater straddles the line between obsession and disciplined focus; it is suggested early in the film that she is a diligent writer, unfazed by the rejection letters of many a theatrical fellowship or residency. Her tastes are also expansive and diverse, though we see from the expertly detailed sets (production design by Nora Mendis, art direction by Roland Trafton, and set dec by Lindsay Stephen) that she favors modernism, innovation, and the divisive singularity of playwrights like Sarah Jones or, maybe, Anne Washburn.

That last one is just a guess based on a quick Matthew Maher appearance, but even the walls of James’s apartment in “deep, deep Bushwick” are decorated with playbills, including one for The Realistic Joneses by Eno. To top it all off, James works at a nonprofit where she teaches children to write and develop personal theater.

Now, I ask you: name another film in which the lead character’s love of theater is made to seem attractive rather than depressive. The closest I can recall is Synecdoche, New York, but Willie Loman pops up in that one, too. What Williams and Strouse do here is to explore how theatrical arts, including the writing, performing, and staging processes, can save the inner life of a person with creative potential. Wells has a scene at the very end of the film where her insecurities come to stand in for every aspiring actor’s thoughts and fears in the making of new work (one might say they extend to filmmakers, too.)

Strouse even sets up a sequence in which Williams visits the James family home in the Midwest, where her childhood bedroom is decorated with her own amateur plays. We learn from this that theater is in the character’s lifeblood; it is not her “thing,” or just a gimmick, but an essential internal inspiration from out of which Strouse directs her relationships to the other characters.

That is why, for example, James fantasizes about confronting Damon in a series of Mel Brooks-like shock theater scenes. It is also why, when she and Boone move towards something more serious, she tests him by allowing him to read some of her work. For if her partner-to-be does not respond, what might that suggest about the depth of his soul?

The sophisticated weight of James’s tastes also owes much to the editors, Jesse Gordon and Mollie Goldstein, who know how to keep a conversation flowing with authenticity and pep (I was particularly tickled by the death metal-inflected montage they stage during the “trip to Ohio” sequence.) The fact that James never appears anything but genuine – the sex scenes here are particularly touching in their naturalism, with O’Dowd’s masculine sensitivity as perfectly calibrated as it was in Bridesmaids – her habits and preferences feel lived in, and real.

Likewise for the artful hair and makeup palette applied to James (Rashida Bolden oversaw the department), who virtually never repeats a hairstyle or a lip color, yet never seems like she is experimenting; and for the costumes (by Amanda Ford), which suggest that James’s hyper-specific idea of fashion-forwardness ranges from Afro-futuristic to Tommy Bahamian to Brooklyn-approved millennial vintage.

Ultimately, The Incredible Jessica James represents an evolution in happiness – or perhaps just in emotional expansiveness – for its notoriously dry-witted bard. Goldstein and Gordon also help Strouse’s script to retain its inimitable zip; this is, above all else, the funniest movie of the new year, and arguably the filmmaker’s most sellable ever.

To say that it is a love-letter to American theater undermines the fact that it is also a reinvocation of themes familiar to Strouse: the melancholia of dating after divorce; the feeling of establishment figures rejecting the pursuit of your art; or the alchemical intensity of female friendships. Like all unique movies, it is a Rorschach test of experience and sensibility – you must see it for yourself to know what it means to you.

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