Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Sundance programmers are smart enough to know that many attendees would be bringing their own personal storm cloud related to the new President’s inauguration falling on the first full day of this year’s event. Perhaps that’s why they programmed a special screening of one of the most purely enjoyable romantic comedies in a long time and a world premiere of a wacky, broad, gigantic ensemble laugher that equally allowed moviegoers to leave the real world behind for 90 minutes. Both of these flicks are often remarkably funny, and they do something similar in the way they play up to the strengths of their talented casts. Not every comedy needs to break the mold, and many of our best in the genre worked because they were designed for the people who fronted them.
Such is the case with “The Incredible Jessica James,” from Jim Strouse (“People Places Things,” “Grace is Gone”), which the writer/director admitted in his introduction was created for “The Daily Show” veteran Jessica Williams. And it shows. She is fantastic, and one truly hopes this film opens dozens of doors for her. It is a movie wildly and unapologetically in love with its leading lady. It’s not that it presents its title character without flaws but that even her insecurities and anxieties come across as so genuine that the people around her love those parts of her as well. It’s a simple film—about a woman getting over one relationship and into another, while also dealing with the delayed gratification that often comes when one pursues a life in the arts—but that simplicity can be deceiving. This is not an easy balancing act. If it was, there would be more quality romantic comedies like it.
Williams plays, of course, Jessica James, a character introduced dancing her way through her apartment, up the stairs, and to her Bushwick roof. She is all energy—fast-talking and faster-thinking. She is defiant in the face of societal norms—a scene in which she gives her younger sister a book about defying the patriarchy for a baby shower is perfectly in tune with the character—but she’s struggling in two areas of her life. She just broke up with her boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield, great here and in the also-at-Sundance “Crown Heights”) and she gets daily rejection letters in her attempts to become a playwright. She works at a theater for children interested in playwriting and does some odd jobs with a friend (Noel Wells of “Master of None”). Said friend introduces her to a recently-divorced guy named Boone (Chris O’Dowd), and the two help each other get over their recent break-ups.
“The Incredible Jessica James” is genuinely funny, but not in an aggressively bit-driven way. Strouse is too delicate of a filmmaker for that, although there are some wonderful broad comedy scenes, including several dream sequences Jessica has about her ex. For the most part though, the humor is character-driven, and this is what’s lacking from most modern rom-coms—relatability. It’s so hard to see ourselves in most romantic comedy characters, but it’s easy to picture checking your ex’s social media feeds obsessively or casually walking by your ex-wife’s house every night just to see what’s up. And Williams conveys the artistic drive of this character beautifully. She doesn't write because she wants to, she has no other choice. And she puts that energy into everything. Jessica and Boone are likable people (O’Dowd hasn’t been this funny since “Bridesmaids”) and it’s just a pleasure to hang out with them for 90 minutes and then move on. It’s not a movie meant to change the world, just to give you a little bit of joy. Try not to smile.
The same could be said about Jeff Baena’s wacky “The Little Hours,” a film with echoes of Mel Brooks in its non-contemporary setting, broad physical comedy, unexpected punchlines, and gigantic ensemble (seriously, every other face is a recognizable one). Baena uses one of the stories of The Decameron as the inspiration for a comedy of religious people who don’t exactly have the expected moral code for a film set in a 14th century convent. Baena may have used The Decameron explicitly but he’s also inspired by physically-driven comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with echoes of “The History of the World, Part 1” and Monty Python’s work. It’s often hysterically funny, especially when allowing its talented cast to play up to their individual strengths.
That cast is led by Alison Brie as Sister Allesandra, living a simple life in a convent, although her sisters are jealous of her greater creature comforts courtesy of her father’s (Paul Reiser) donations to the church. Said sisters include the foul-mouthed and possibly sociopathic Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and the more demure and chaste Ginerva (Kate Micucci). Their simple life is interrupted when a young man named Massetto (Dave Franco) takes up residence as a handyman in their convent. Hidden there by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), Massetto pretends to be a deaf-mute (again, so Brooks) so as not to raise suspicions. Of course, this only makes him more fascinating to the sisters, who all try to sleep with him. Molly Shannon co-stars and Nick Offerman and Fred Armisen practically steal the movie in just a few scenes.
Again, much like “Jessica James,” a review of “The Little Hours” can be summarized in the word "enjoyable." I laughed, multiple times. And that’s really all Baena wants here. He’s not making any grand statements about religion or sexuality. He just wants you to laugh. And I did. A lot. At this Sundance, more than most years, that seems like a gift.