Published June 1, 1998
Mr Jealousy directed by Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) is the kind of film that young filmmakers ought to be making, and that I approve of in theory. But I’m afraid it is just not very good. The jokes in this would-be romantic comedy for the ’90s fall mostly short of being funny, the characters are not very likeable and the self-conscious Seinfeldism of the mise en scène would be boring even if it were not derivative. Eric Stoltz plays Lester Grimm, the eponymous Mr Jealousy. We get a lot of mumbo-jumbo to start with, outlining the psychological origins of his obsessive jealousy. These vignettes from the past are rather made light of, but they should have been dropped entirely. Using the theme from Jules et Jim and a voiceover narrator (“Lester gritted his teeth; Ramona had an existence before him”) is less suggestive of post-modern cleverness than it is of the fact that Mr Baumbach has rather missed the point of Jules et Jim.
The story proper begins as Lester discovers that his girlfriend, Ramona Ray (Annabella Sciorra), has among an uncomfortable number of old boyfriends an up-and-coming young novelist and “spokesman for his generation” called Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman). As Lester himself is an aspiring writer, his jealousy becomes even more intense. One day, Lester sees Dashiell Frank on the street and follows him to what turns out to be a group therapy session with one Dr. Poke (Peter Bogdanovich). Lester joins the group, pretending to be his friend Vince (Carlos Jacott). This provides the occasion for further inflamation of Lester’s jealousy (at one point, Dashiell, describes Ramona to the group as “a bit of a tart” who still excites him), but also for Lester to sneak around like the unfaithful one, since he naturally doesn’t want Ramona to know what he is doing. Things get really complicated, when Dashiell takes a liking to him and tries to make friends.
The possibilities are certainly there, but somehow they are never realized. Every now and then a joke works. The best one, reminiscent of Truffaut himself, comes when Vince, with a characteristic instinct for the perfect cliché, tells Lester that Dashiell Frank puts his pants on one leg at a time, whereupon we cut to a shot of Frank leaping into his trousers with both legs simultaneously. In another instance, Lester’s jealousy begins to overflow as he talks to Ramona: “We slept together on the first date,” he says. “You could have waited; you could have made me wait . . .I think you went a little fast with me.”
“Are you jealous of yourself?” asks Ramona incredulously. But such moments are regrettably rare.