Mr Jealousy

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 1998)


In the 1970s, a tough, uncompromising movement in American experimental cinema called itself the 'new talkies'. The label deserves to be resuscitated today to cover a much softer brand of independent work. Whatever else such directors as Tarantino, Hartley, Stillman, Kevin Smith and their many devotees may have achieved, perhaps their most dubious distinction is to have turned a generation of filmmakers dialogue-mad – to the detriment of every other level of the creative process.

The cinema has always had a distinguished flank of highly verbal directors (from Joseph Mankiewicz to Éric Rohmer). But where these artists drew from many sources – theatre, the novel, the street – the American independents seem fixated above all on television situation comedy. It is from this fount of banality that the easy patter, clichéd characterisations and thin performances of so many low-budget films seem to proceed.

Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, 1995) is part of this word-crazy generation. To be fair, his second film, Mr Jealousy, has a shot at varying the flat, styleless, monotonal TV structures favoured by so many of his peers. There is a little flashy editing and ostentatious camera work; some nice scene transitions and endearing optical work (vignettes and irises) harking back to the silent days.

The plot of Mr Jealousy is an elaborate conceit based on identity masquerade, although Baumbach eschews its more vulgar comic possibilities. Lester (Eric Stoltz) is a guy driven to distraction by the mere thought that his new girlfriend, Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), has previously slept with other men. So he tracks down her most famous ex-flame, Generation-X novelist Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), and joins his psychotherapy group.

For this insane plan to even begin to work, Lester must pose as his own best friend, Vince (Carlos Jacott). However, the neurotic Vince seizes upon the opportunity to have himself sorted out by proxy – and eventually joins the group too, also posing as someone else. Meanwhile, both Lester's relationship with Ramona and Vince's with Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are cracking up from the stress of all this introspection and paranoia.

From the distanced yet compassionate tone of the voice-over narration (spoken by Baumbach himself) and an early blast from Georges Delerue's score for Jules and Jim (1961), film buffs will instantly recognise Mr Jealousy as an extended homage to François Truffaut and the French Nouvelle Vague. The film's most successful elements – such as its air of sweet sadness – undoubtedly derive from this inspiration.

Yet why, ultimately, does it fall so far short of its model? Although Truffaut is among the most admired and quoted of filmmakers, I suspect that his style is inimitable. Baumbach (son of film critic and novelist Jonathan Baumbach) does not begin to approach the rigorous economy and light-footed pace of a good Truffaut movie. Where the master would have cut this material to the bone and underplayed its big moments, the pupil lets everything drag and underlines all the turning points, lest we miss them.

Baumbach is also not yet adept at mixing his moods – another Truffaut trademark. Mr Jealousy tries to run drama and comedy, pathos and farce together – especially via the clumsily portrayed Vince. The busy denouement, which we are meant to find simultaneously tearing and hilarious, is simply a fizzer. And Stoltz (also executive producer) is a terribly uneven foundation on which to balance such a story: his screen presence is often so weak he seems to be fading out before our very eyes.

© Adrian Martin December 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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