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Poison Envy

[whitespace] Mr. Jealousy
Bob Akester

Ramona's In: Ramona (Annabella Sciorra) drives her nervous new boyfriend into group therapy in Noah Baumbach's 'Mr. Jealousy.'

'Mr. Jealousy' tries to imitate Woody

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE SOPHOMORE director Noah Baumbach's appeal to the audience through gregariousness and sweetness, the likeability and low-keyness--the Seinfeldness--of his romantic comedy Mr. Jealousy is spread thin. Jealousy torments Lester Grimm (executive producer Eric Stoltz), who has career troubles as a writer/substitute teacher and whose new relationship with cute Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), an art-history grad student, is troubled by his thoughts of Ramona's ex-boyfriend, Dashiell (Chris Eigeman). Dashiell is, essentially, Douglas Coupland--one of those writers who won the lottery, so to speak, and has been officially declared the "voice of his generation" despite his dearth of talent.

Lester joins Dashiell's group-therapy session (the doctor in charge is played by Peter Bogdanovich, who gave Stoltz an early role in Mask) under a false name and spies on him, puncturing his pretensions and sneering at his understandable guilt. The plan, however, backfires. Dashiell, whose butt has become callused from the kissing of the world, takes a shine to the disguised Lester just because he seems to be telling the truth. Tangled in his own fictions, Lester can't maintain his relationship and has to watch as Lester and Ramona start seeing each other again.

Stoltz is a pleasing juvenile actor in the vein of Michael J. Fox; most will remember him as the drug dealer in the "adrenaline shot" scene in Pulp Fiction. While Stoltz is youthful, he isn't young enough to play a man with these particular sorts of problems; Sciorra is also too old to put up with Lester's malarkey about counting her ex-boyfriends. Baumbach tries to explain why the two are still in a postcollege limbo, but it doesn't wash. Baumbach's earlier film, Kicking and Screaming, was also about young people's unwillingness to leave college for "the real world." What is fresh about Kicking and Screaming is its suggestion that there doesn't have to be a "real world." Baumbach still shows a loose, unjudgmental way with characters and scenes. In Kicking and Screaming, Carlos Jacott played the Kramer/Jughead part; here, Jacott shows up as Vince, a more responsible character with a live-in girlfriend (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of Secrets & Lies) and a pestering Jughead of his own, a character named Lint (John Lehr). Jacott figures in the film's most comic scene, trying on a dreadful British accent for disguise as he, too, breaks into the group-therapy session.

Mr. Jealousy is modeled on Woody Allen's comedies, but the film doesn't have the bittersweetness in the finish that made Allen's films worth rolling over in your mind. This '70s pastiche features a much more commercial ending, in which everything is forgiven; even the preposterously famous writer turns out to be a nice guy. The shift in tone from crafty and neurotic to soft and crowd-pleasing romance makes Mr. Jealousy seem rather gutless. At one point, Ramona says to Lester, "You can only find incompetence endearing for so long." It's true about wishy-washiness, too.

Mr. Jealousy (R; 103 min.), directed and written by Noah Baumbach, photographed by Steven Bernstein and starring Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra.

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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