The Mediocre Jessica Williams
A year or two before Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show in 2015 he was visibly not as sharp as he was in for the previous decade he fronted the program that he transformed into one of the best US contemporary political TV satires. Several of his greatest correspondents including Stephen Colbert, Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were long gone and doing their own things.
In a group of mostly ho hum supporting talent, Jessica Williams, an acerbic millennial 6-foot black woman, was clearly the audience favorite. She had so much goodwill that several Daily Show launched campaigns for her to replace Stewart. Many went berserk when Trevor Noah got the job. I was never on the Jessica Williams bandwagon; I found her segments lacking in originality and the faux-bemused straight-talking shtick always fell a bit flat on delivery.
In spite of my bias against Williams, I wanted to like her newest movie, The Incredible Jessica James. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this wasn’t going to be the movie for me. Writer-director Jim Strouse, who cast Williams in a supporting role in his 2015 indie film People Places Things, was captivated by her and felt that she needed her own vehicle.
In Jessica James, Williams plays a 25-year-old aspiring playwright in a creative and personal funk after a break-up with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). Watching Williams headline a 90-minute feature, I had a clearer picture of why I am not a fanboy. Towards the end of the film, James’ sort of love interest (Chris O’Dowd), who binged read her plays, remarked that her body of work reveals her complexity as a person.
The problem is, we don’t see James’ multifaceted personality because Williams doesn’t show it to us. For the most part Williams is replicating her Daily Show persona. Her character is intended to be intelligent and prickly, in part due to her frustration of being an unproduced playwright. We get that. The problem is Williams is incredibly guarded and unapproachable which makes it very difficult to be invested in her character. She’s poker-faced, but she’s not droll and there’s no mystery lurking beneath.
On The Daily Show, Williams preached to the choir. In Jessica James, she talks down to the audience. The only scenes Williams seemed to halfway enjoy performing are when she berates characters who don’t share her supposedly contradictory profound insights, such as her tinder date who isn’t romantically sexually aggressive enough or a suburban mom at her sister’s baby shower who is befuddled by James’ revisionist feminist children’s book.
Williams is unconvincing at showing the warmer side of her character, the one that encompasses a sister-like friendship with a struggling actress (Noel Wells) and a job as a drama instructor for underprivileged youth. These subplots are particularly ponderous to watch with their lack of charm and a sense that they’re more obligatory than organic.
The obsessive emphasis on Williams creates a large vacuum for the rest of the film. Chris O’Dowd, who shares the most scenes with Williams is particularly constrained. O’Dowd, who excels at goofy, broad comedy (his work in the brilliant sitcom The IT Crowd is excellent), visibly struggles with his dour character, an App developer who isn’t over his ex-wife but has feelings for James. It doesn’t help that he and Williams have no chemistry (it should be noted that Williams doesn’t convincingly interact with anybody).
The only source of amusement comes from nightmare sequences where James’ ex confronts her at unexpected places and aggressively corners her about their break up before being killed by a large, random object.
Stanfield’s was the only mildly interesting performance, a big feat considering that his is a hodge podge abstract role with little screen time. With the charismatic twinkle in his eyes, he is personable and vivacious, unlike the rest of the film which is frigid and stiff. You can see why he is in demand.
A friend who watched Jessica James thought it would work better as a TV show. Considering how popular Williams is and how gung ho Netflix is in making TV series and how TV is as much of a cesspool for remakes as movies and Broadway these days, it’s entirely plausible that a TV version could materialize. If it does, I’ll skip it.