Mr. Jealousy (1997): Baumbach’s Sophomore Comedy, Starring Eric Stoltz and Annabelle Sciorra

Toronto Film Fest 1997–As a follow-up to his acclaimed feature debut, Kicking and Screaming, which has become a campus favorite, Mr. Jealousy is not a sophomore jinx, but it’s not very good either. Based on a single idea, which then gets numerous reverberations, this serio comedy would have been much more successful as a short.

Our Grade: ** out of *****

Baumbachs titular protagonist, Lester Grimm, played with panache by Eric Stoltz (whos also the films exec-producer) is a bright, reasonable, and likable, but utterly insecure Manhattanite, who falls for Ramona (Annabelle Sciorra), a sexually desirable woman, and becomes insanely and dysfunctionally jealous of her past.

Baumbachs effort to combine the tradition of screwball comedies of the 1930s with a contempo dramedy grounded in the late 1990s zeitgeist is only semi-successful. Direct inspiration seems to come from Woody Allens New York comedies and particularly Whit Stillmans trilogy of films, beginning with Manhattan and ending with Last Days of Disco, all of which center on bright, anxiety-ridden youngsters.

At this phase of his career, Baumbach is a better writer than director. Blessed with sharp observational skills, Baumbach writes realistic dialogue thats also playful. Slightly more polished than his first feature, “Kicking and Screaming,” Mr. Jealousy sill shows helmers need to acquire sharper technical skills that will give his films more visual pleasure and technical distinction.

Like early Allen films, Mr. Jealousy is replete with references to other films and self-analytical psych-babble, some of which quite poignant and funny. Indeed, the picture is very much the product of a cineaste, who has studied film history and likes to quote the masters, evident in the spoken opening credits (a tribute to Orson Welles), the use of Georges Delerue’s music for Truffanut’s “Jules and Jim,” and so on.

Early on, a narrator intones: This is the story of Lester and Ramona, followed by Lesters date with a girl, attending a screening of Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece “Rules of the Game” (an homage to Woody Allen dating Diane Keaton at the Bleecker Street Revival House).

A former CNN producer, who also works as a part-time Spanish teacher (but speaks no Spanish), Lester is at a loss, both professionally and emotionally. An aspiring scribe, right now, he needs to make a decision whether to attend Iowa Universitys prestigious writing program.

Through his friends Vince (Carlos Jacott) and Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, making her American debut after highly acclaimed turn in Mike Leighs “Secrets & Lies”), he is introduced to upfront but slightly wacky Ramona (Sciorra), a woman who boasts at least 26 ex-lovers (a note that might have been borrowed from Kevin Smiths funnier monologue about 37 blow jobs in the 1994 hit comedy Clerks).

Romona’s latest Lothario, the arrogant and accomplished author Dashiell (Chris Eigeman, a regular presence in Whit Stillmans pictures) presents a particularly strong threat. Obsessed with envy and consumed by suspicions, Lester joins Dashiell’s therapy group under an assumed name to find out whats so special about the writeror, rather, whats missing about him, Lester.

Buambach brings to the fore the sexual hang-ups and emotional anxieties of a young man, who had a traumatic experience in the past: When he was 15, Lester chickened out of his first good night kiss and then found his date kissing another guy.

A romantic comedy with serio overtones, the film has two sets of characters, lead and supporting, and while the former are engaging and well-acted, the latter are more one-dimensional and stereotypical.

At least one third of the film consists of scenes that fall flat, wither because they are not sufficiently funny, or because they are repetitious and superfluous, thus stopping cold the little narrative flow the film possesses. This is certainly the case of Lesters sessions with Dashiell’s shrink, played by director Peter Bogdanovich in a (deliberately) hammy performance.

Subplot of Lester assuming Vinces identity and its impact on Vince and Lucretias relationship is also not very convincing, and fills like a filler to bring the other wise slender film to the requisite running time of a normal feature.

Mr. Jealousy gets increasingly worse, and denouement indicates that Baumbach didnt know how to end his saga and might have considered alternate resolutions in the writing and/or editing phases.

As noted, the two lead performances are good. Sciorra shines as the slightly strange Ramona, a free-spirited woman who believes in equality between the genders when sex is concerned. Stoltz, whose presence decorates many 90s yuppie movies, is also well-cast as the emotionally bruised, self-absorbed lad with a chip on his shoulder. Bridget Fonda appears in a splashy cameo as Dashiell’s stuttering girlfriend.

Credits

Lions Gate release of Mr. Jealousy Productions
Director-screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Producer: Joel Castleberg
Camera: Steven Bernstein
Editing: J. Kathleen Gibson
Costume: Katherine Jane Bryant
Music: Robert Een, Luna

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Cast

Lester:: Eric Stoltz
Ramona: Annabella Sclorra
Vince: Carlos Jacott
Lucretia: Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Dashiell: Chris Eigeman

With Peter Bogdanovich and Bridget Fonda