Love Is a Battlefield

Armed again with the comedy of despair but with far more focus than the last time out (1995's Kicking and Screaming), director Noah Baumbach takes on perhaps the most coiled and resilient of the seven deadlies in his bright comedy of manners, Mr. Jealousy.

The affable Lester (Eric Stoltz) has been cursed since childhood with the sinister insecurity of jealousy. Ever since he failed to rise to the occasion of his first goodnight kiss -- only to learn the hard way that absence makes the heart go yonder -- he has imagined the worst of each succeeding romantic attachment, and now carries around the unseen burden of latent kookdom. When he is introduced to a spitfire named Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), all seems rosy. That is, until he is overcome with the challenge of keeping his character flaw bottled up inside.

He manages well enough until Ramona's ex-boyfriend, fatuous literary phenomenon Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman), begins to leer at him from book jacket photos and to dominate anecdotes from Ramona's not-so-distant past. Unable to stop himself, Lester takes to shadowing Dashiell around Greenwich Village and the literary breeding ground of Washington Square; eventually he follows him into a group therapy session moderated by the droll yet dyspeptic Dr. Poke (a schoolmarmish Peter Bogdanovich).

A self-declared novelist in his own right, Lester invents a past for himself, borrowing liberally from the life of his engaged friend Vince (Carlos Jacott, who also appeared in Kicking and Screaming). When Vince joins the group, the situation rapidly falls into user-friendly farce and sets off a burning fuse of a plot that resolves everyone's issues in a perfunctory fashion.

But unlike in Kicking and Screaming, where characters rattled on interchangeably and were adept at glib repartee but clueless about the world that begins at the end of their nose, here Baumbach imbues his smart but solipsistic creatures of habit with goals. This character motivation, no matter how old-fashioned, propels the action to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

Making notable impressions: Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies), a curious choice for Vince's willful fiancee Lucretia in that she's both British and black, and Bridget Fonda as Dashiell's stuttering girlfriend Irene. As for Stoltz, he imparts a smoldering slow-burn to Lester that's reminiscent of Nicolas Cage at his most combustible. But best by far is Eigeman, playing, if not against type, at least against expectations. So self-contained is his enfant-dweeb Dashiell that the character is rendered practically guileless, embracing Lester as a newfound friend merely because he's the first in a long while to pierce the smug veil of his autonomous existence. With roles now in two Baumbach and three Whit Stillman films, Eigeman is emerging as an actor, like Steve Buscemi, who is always letter-perfect.

Along with Rory Kelly (Sleep with Me, Some Girls) and Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco), Baumbach seems to be emerging as one of the leaders of the Chat Pack, a cabal of weisenheimers and regalers who are slowly perfecting the small art of cocktail banter. It's encouraging to see there's nothing wrong with twentysomething drama that a step toward one's thirties can't cure.

Mr. Jealousy.
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach. Starring Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, and Carlos Jacott.

 
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