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It’s fashionable these days to denounce French movies in which people prattle on about love and life. But is it the prattling that’s out of favor, or the fact that it’s in French? There are a growing number of American indie-film writer-directors who specialize in the chatter of trendy urbanites, and none of them so far pose a significant threat to French director Eric Rohmer, not to mention Olivier Assayas.
To judge from his second film, the presentable if not profound Mr. Jealousy, Noah Baumbach is thinking less in terms of Rohmer than Woody Allen. The film’s protagonist, Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz), is an uptight semi-intellectual who’s been obsessively jealous of his girlfriends ever since, at age 15, he spied his first love, also 15, kissing a 24-year-old at a party. (How Woody is Lester? On their first date, the two high school sophomores go to see The Rules of the Game.) Now 31, aimless, and a substitute teacher, Lester is just as unsure of his current paramour, Ramona Ray (Annabella Sciorra), a tour guide at the Brooklyn Museum. And did I mention that Lester has been accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa writer’s program, but can’t decide if he wants to go?
Lester’s literary ambitions become even more of an issue when Ramona reveals that acclaimed young short-story author Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman, bearded but otherwise as expected) is one of her many ex-boyfriends. Lester has long subjected his girlfriends’ exes to surveillance, so it’s only natural for him to start stalking Dashiell. Soon he’s joined the writer’s therapy group, hoping to learn more about the erotic short story whose female protagonist he suspects is based on Ramona.
Of course, Lester can’t join the group under his real name. He decides to pose as his friend Vince (Carlos Jacott), who agrees to the deal as long as Lester will discuss with the group Vince’s misgivings about his pending marriage to Lucretia (Secrets and Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Lester does so, but he’s more interested in criticizing Dashiell for being a pretentious, egotistical philanderer. Therapy leader Dr. Poke (director Peter Bogdanovich) sometimes has to intercede in these battles, but Dashiell comes to enjoy them. Unaware of Lester’s personal animus, the writer assumes that his fellow patient is practicing a psychoanalytical version of tough love. This ruse has to collapse eventually, and Lester decides to leave the group after becoming friendly with Dashiell and his girlfriend Irene (Bridget Fonda, Stoltz’s real-life beau, showily if pointlessly cast as a stutterer).
The presence of Eigeman in all five of their films is not the only connection between Baumbach, the son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, and The Last Days of Disco writer-director Whit Stillman. At least Baumbach creates individual characters, even if he does give them such didactic surnames as Grimm, Frank, Poke, and Ray (as in fresh, disinfecting sunlight, presumably). Whereas Stillman’s dialogue often seems to issue from the collective yuppie overmind, Baumbach’s does reveal characteralthough the male players tend to be better endowed with personality than their female counterparts, who mostly just embody the threats of sexuality and domesticity. When the director turns Ramona into an obsessive-compulsive, it seems less a logical development than an attempt to incorporate all today’s fashionable neuroses.
Although Mr. Jealousy features an elaborate homage to director John Ford, Baumbach doesn’t entirely trust cinema to tell a story. The film never manages to ditch the narrator who sets up the opening scenes, and the director further emphasizes his artifice with plentiful wipes and iris shots. Like Allen, Baumbach has a weakness for the cheap gag: At one point, a drunken Dashiell in all sincerity plays Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Mr. Jealousy has better taste in music. Luna contributes some minimalist incidental music and a version of (of course) “Jealous Guy”; Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” plays at an appropriate time. The film’s not all that hip, though. The final sceneand for this you’ll have to stay to the very end of the creditsmight as well be a moment from a lower-Manhattan version of Diner.
Connoisseurs of smart, talky youth-culture pictures who aren’t afraid of subtitles should note that there are still two films yet to screen in the National Gallery’s Edward Yang retrospective: the epic A Brighter Summer Day (June 20) and That Day, on the Beach (June 27). Yang’s group portraits of dispossessed Taipei youth are psychologically astute, wryly comic, and brilliantly interwoven. It’s hard to believe there’s no major American distributor prepared to handle Mahjong (which screened last week). Not only is it smart, funny, and stylishit’s also mostly in English.CP