Friday June 5, 1998
Back when he was 15, Lester lost his nerve when it came time for a good-night kiss, only to later spy his beloved in the arms of someone else. Fidelity, not surprisingly, became an issue with him, and in college he can be glimpsed trailing after his girlfriends' exes "like a detective shadowing a subject."
Set in neurotic Manhattan, "Mr. Jealousy" shows what happens when the thirtyish Lester (Eric Stoltz) meets Ramona Ray (Annabella Sciorra), a free spirit always on the alert for wounded birds to rescue. It's a film about both the improbability and inevitability of romance, a warm, playful and clever look at the precariousness of human relationships. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, it's a success all the way around.
"Mr. Jealousy" is the 27-year-old Baumbach's second feature, following 1996's "Kicking and Screaming." Like its predecessor, this film has a way with the comic insecurities and obsessions of the modern age. And its easygoing and engaging quality masks how rare an accomplishment it is to create something achingly true as well as amusing, as wise about people as it is about the craft of film.
For a gambit like "Mr. Jealousy" to succeed, the writer-director has to be a matchmaker several times over. He has to first mediate between his characters and his actors, getting the performers to understand his off-center people as well as he does. Even harder is the mediation between the characters and the audience, the creation of a bond that makes viewers empathetic instead of dismissive when multiple quirks develop.
Baumbach and his cast manage to do all this and make it seem easy. This is more than a question of writing bright dialogue, though "Mr. Jealousy" does have numerous lines like "You can only find incompetence endearing for so long." Nor is it only the ability to relax actors and give them confidence, though Baumbach has managed to coax stars Stoltz and Sciorra into some of the most confident and natural performances of their careers (and given how potentially unsympathetic Stoltz's role might be, that is no small accomplishment).
Rather it's the writer-director's gift for truly seeing people, for imagining them whole, foibles and all, that is the critical element. And deciding to build the piece around a sophisticated, knowing voice-over that is bemused as well as caring is a structure that makes everything possible.
Lester and Ramona, the narrator tells us, are introduced by mutual friends Vince (Carlos Jacott) and Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of "Secrets and Lies") who are themselves engaged and "feeling generous with love."
Ramona is a tour guide at the Brooklyn Museum who's working on a PhD in Abstract Expressionism, while Lester, the kind of substitute teacher who ends up teaching Spanish though he doesn't know a word, is a stalled writer who'd like to get down to it but doesn't quite know how.
A mass of insecurities at the best of times, a past master at torturing himself without reason, Lester goes into overdrive when he discovers that one of Ramona's (numerous) ex-boyfriends is the celebrated young novelist Dashiell Frank (smartly played by Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), author of "Post Euphoria" and widely acclaimed as, yes, the voice of his generation.
Recognizing Dashiell Frank on a Manhattan street from his book jacket photo, Lester reverts to type and clandestinely follows his unsuspecting prey. When he discovers that the author is a member of a therapy group run by the avuncular Dr. Poke (director Peter Bogdanovich), Lester impulsively joins, giving himself the identity of his good friend Vince and not letting on that he and the writer have Ramona between them.
No good, clearly, can possibly come of this, but as Lester's deception gleefully spirals out of control, leading him and his friends into an increasingly desperate and comic series of dodges, half-truths and prevarications, we have to marvel at how easily Baumbach manages to juggle both emotional tones and plot twists. While predicting futures is a rube's game, it's hard to observe how well "Mr. Jealousy" manages it all without thinking this young man has quite a bright one.
Mr. Jealousy, 1998. R, for language. Released by Lions Gate Releasing. Director Noah Baumbach. Producer Joel Castleberg. Screenplay Noah Baumbach. Cinematographer Steven Bernstein. Editor J. Kathleen Gibson. Costumes Katherine Jane Bryant. Music Robert Een, Luna. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Eric Stoltz as Lester Grimm. Annabella Sciorra as Ramona Ray. Carlos Jacott as Vince. Chris Eigeman as Dashiell Frank. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lucretia. Peter Bogdanovich as Dr. Poke. Bridget Fonda as Irene.