With its right-on cast, movie references and self-analytical Manhattan dialogue, it would be easy to dismiss “Mr. Jealousy” as Woody Lite. But the truth is that, on its own level, the pic is a real charmer for those prepared to check their preconceptions at the door. This warmhearted romantic comedy about an emotional klutz consumed by jealousy over his girlfriend’s ex-b.f. has enough laughs and likable characters to make it easy to spend an hour and three-quarters in their company. Pic should do moderate business in upscale urban sites before strolling on to a longer life on homevideo.
Though a smoother and more technically accomplished ride than Noah Baumbach’s first feature, “Kicking and Screaming,” there’s the same film-buff tone throughout — from the spoken opening credits (a la Welles, Bergman), through the use of Georges Delerue’s music for Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” to a v.o. narrator who starts, “This is the story of Lester and Ramona” (pick your own French New Wave movie) and a lead character whose first date with a girl was for a screening of Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” Viewers who get a rash just thinking about this kind of knowingly referential pic, populated by people with too much spare time on their hands, should stay away.
Lester (Eric Stoltz, who also exec produces) is a former CNN producer and occasional substitute teacher who’s drifted through life as a professional wannabe and just can’t seem to get the tumblers to fall into place with girls. His next big decision is whether he accepts an offer from Iowa U. for its graduate writing program.
On the babe front, things are looking up for Lester: Through his friends Vince (Carlos Jacott) and Lucretia (Britisher Marianne Jean-Baptiste, from “Secrets & Lies”), he’s met the upfront but slightly wacky Ramona (Annabella Sciorra). The only blip on the horizon is Lester’s uncontrollable jealousy — not so much about Ramona’s 26 previous boyfriends as over her most recent, arrogant bestselling author Dashiell (Chris Eigeman). Lester is consumed by suspicions, and under an alias joins Dashiell’s therapy group to discover whether the oily scribe still carries a torch for her.
Writer-director Baumbach’s development of this plot fluff into something that can hold the attention over feature length is generally clever. He elicits enough fondness for the characters in the early going to carry the viewer through some of the later duller patches — mostly the scenes with Dashiell’s shrink (played with professorial glee by Peter Bogdanovich), which aren’t quite as funny as they need to be, nor as clear, given the plot complexities at that point. Pic also doesn’t know when to quit, with three endings and even a further scene after the final roller.
Still, the performances are the thing, and both Sciorra, who’s excellent as the slightly out-of-reach Ramona, and Stoltz, who’s very assured as Lester, exactly catch the ’90s screwball tone in Baumbach’s script. Eigeman is fine as Dashiell, and Jean-Baptiste, making a reasonable stab at an American accent, OK. Bridget Fonda contribs a neat, surprisingly touching cameo as Dashiell’s stuttering girlfriend.