I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Mr. Jealousy

also June 5, 1998

This review series has swerved off in an unexpected direction. Usually I do these summer movie retrospectives to experience/revisit the big expensive blockbusters of past eras, and I throw in some of the other stuff for variety and historical context. But with the early part of summer ’98 dominated by big movies as bad as LOST IN SPACE and GODZILLA, but given personality by smaller ones as good as WILD THINGS, HE GOT GAME and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, I caught on that it was in my own best interest to be a little more completist than usual. So I went back to my list and added THE OPPOSITE OF SEX and a few other more modest comedy and arthouse type movies that are coming up, and then I realized that this MR. JEALOUSY that I had assumed was some generic studio comedy was actually the second feature by writer/director Noah Baumbach. So here we are.

This is the story of Lester (Eric Stoltz, ANACONDA) and Ramona (Annabella Sciorra, FIND ME GUILTY) during some months they spend together as a tenuous New York City couple. Lester is Mr. Jealousy because, as we learn from narration, he caught his first ever girlfriend cheating on him, and then in college he spied on one and saw her getting it on with a previous boyfriend, so now he’s extremely suspicious of anyone he dates and lives his life cripplingly paranoid about their exes. Some kids have an experience that makes them grow up to be Batman, some have this.

In real life a guy with that problem would berate his girlfriend about talking to other men and just be such an obvious asshole that we’d immediately hate him. In this romantic comedy, though, Lester finds a more passive aggressive, convoluted and uncomfortable way to push his neuroses on innocent women. Coincidentally spotting hot “voice of a generation” short story author and ex-boyfriend of Ramona Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman) on the street, Lester impulsively follows him into a building and joins his therapy group (led by Peter Bogdonavich) under false pretenses. (This came between Fight Club the book and FIGHT CLUB the movie. I guess stories about bad faith support group attendance were in the air.)

Lester tells Ramona that he’s going to therapy, but not that he’s doing it to spy on her ex-boyfriend and figure out if any of his stories are about her. He starts living this phony life based on a big lie and we squirm for an hour while waiting for it to come crashing down. To avoid Dashiell figuring out their connection he doesn’t talk about his own life – he uses the name and problems of his friend Vince (Carlos Jacott, BATS), describing his understanding of Vince’s actual difficulties with his fiancee Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, ROBOCOP), interjecting his own opinions in the guise of, “My friend Lester says…” This leads to some funny, absurd situations like the group telling “Vince” not to be friends with this asshole Lester, or the real Vince constantly quizzing him about what the group says, trying to receive therapy by proxy because Lucretia won’t let him do it himself.

Lester is a substitute teacher who once fancied himself a serious writer, so he’s jealous of Dashiell’s success. He can’t get off his ass to finish his own writing or even finish reading Dashiell’s book, but he’s sure the book sucks and that he could do better. My first instinct is to look down on him for this and my second is to admit to myself that I understand the feeling. So this is one of those movies that’s maybe too forgiving of a selfish asshole who sees himself as the victim, but I suspect it comes from a genuine place of a male artist trying to explore and satirize his insecurities.

The best part is that Lester hates Dashiell and goes overboard in criticizing the things he says, but this makes Dashiell respect him as a no-bullshit tough-love kinda guy and want to be his friend outside of the group. So eventually Lester is lying to his girlfriend to hide that he’s spending time with her ex-boyfriend who he only knows because he worried that she might lie to him to spend time with this guy. I found myself wishing he would just tell Dashiell the truth and see if he could at least salvage that friendship. But people in movies don’t have to make decisions that I approve of.

How the fuck do these fictional characters bury themselves so deep in lies? I don’t like it. Don’t do that, people. You start out justifying some little deception and the more you cover it up the harder it is to back out of and next thing you know it’s years later and you’re Rachel Dolezal or Milli Vanilli or James Frey or somebody. Or people ask you for advice about prison or addiction because you thought it was funny to make up a phony persona to write about movies with when you were younger and you should’ve known if people took you at your word then you’d be a total asshole for misleading them about something like that. Yeah, on second thought I guess I can understand it. (film rights inquiries welcome)

Still, there are few things more uncomfortable than watching someone lie badly. There’s a torturous scene where he claims he’s been out watching THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and she starts making conversation about it and he realizes he doesn’t really know for sure who is in it or what it’s about or even if it’s in color or black and white.

Stoltz brings a Matthew Broderick innocent quality to an on-paper smug and self-absorbed character. On the surface he’s nice to Ramona, but he’s secretly spending his life conspiring to prove that she wronged him… by having a life with other people before she met him. I can’t think about it too long or I turn on him. While watching the movie I try to give him a chance to redeem himself.

One way he makes it hard, though, is wearing this giant coat all the time. It looks like doll clothes on him.

Left: the real Eric Stoltz in a real coat. Right: a doll of Michelle Yeoh in doll clothes.

There are plenty of laughs. I love the little scene where he substitutes as a gym teacher. He tries to play basketball with the students and they plow right over him, ignoring his attempt to call a foul on them. Afterwards he’s sitting on the stairs as they walk over him trying to console him by applauding his effort.

It’s also full of those dead-on observation moments, little recognizable things from life that you don’t necessarily always put in a story – like when two people who used to date are excited to bump into each other on the street and their new significant others stand there awkwardly trying to smile and be polite.

And then just the little visual details, like this amazing work of art that Dashiell has hanging in his house:

Google research tells me it must be a Julian Schnabel, not a made up parody of modern art. The artist (who had already directed BASQUIAT) started writing “There is no place on this planet more horrible than a fox farm during pelting season” on his work after seeing it cryptically scrawled on a ten dollar bill. Forget how much Dashiell would’ve had to pay to get this hideous thing – just the frame would be ridiculously expensive!

(Summer of ’98 connections: A PERFECT MURDER’s Viggo Mortensen ran in similar art circles to Schnabel and dated his daughter Lola at one time.)

MR. JEALOUSY has pretty much non-stop narration, but it works, especially since it’s a story that takes place over many dates and days and evenings with time passing between them, and with lots of characters who have different things that can be explained about their ideas and backstories, like would happen in a book (or Dashiell’s short stories). For some reason I assumed Baumbach himself was the narrator voice, but I don’t know where I got that idea from, and I was unable to find any mention of who it is in the credits, IMDb, reviews or articles. It occurs to me now that it could make sense if it was Eigeman, but I don’t think it is.

Known primarily for MASK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL in the ’80s, Stoltz had sort of a resurgence during the ’90s indie wave, showing up in NAKED IN NEW YORK, KILLING ZOE, PULP FICTION, SLEEP WITH ME, Baumbach’s debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, GRACE OF MY HEART, 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, KEYS TO TULSA and HI-LIFE (though he was also in LITTLE WOMEN, THE PROPHECY, ROB ROY and ANACONDA during that time). MR. JEALOUSY came in at the end of that movement, when Stoltz was already transitioning into tv movies (THE PASSION OF AYN RAND, OUR GUYS: OUTRAGE AT GLEN RIDGE) and TV shows (Chicago Hope), which are where most of his work has come from since.

Sciorra also had her big moment in the ’90s, starring in JUNGLE FEVER and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, among other things. What we didn’t know at the time was that (as reported recently in The New Yorker) after making THE NIGHT WE NEVER MET for Miramax, Harvey Weinstein shoved his way into Sciorra’s apartment and raped her. Her father says she got depressed and lost weight, her friend Rosie Perez says she “started acting weird and getting reclusive,” and she says she started having trouble getting work because people were being told she was “difficult.” A few years later the shitbag producer started leaving her messages, sending cars to her, even showing up and pounding on her door, and when she filmed COP LAND he came to her room wearing underwear and holding baby oil and she had to call people to scare him away.

In retrospect it looks like that nightmare might’ve prevented her career from getting to the heights it might have unencumbered, but like Stoltz she has done many TV movies and shows since then, including an acclaimed stint on The Sopranos.

Eddie Kaye Thomas, who would soon be known for AMERICAN PIE (where his character is largely defined by a fear of using the school restroom), is in one scene as a kid in Spanish class who asks to use the restroom. That’s not very important to mention, but I am mentioning it.

The major player whose career grew the most after this is obviously Baumbach. I guess I never saw his early movies before. I knew him from the good but bitter as hell movies THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG, so it seemed weird to me that he was Wes Anderson’s co-writer on THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and FANTASTIC MR. FOX. I always suspected he was Anderson’s mean side, a theory supported by Baumbach’s directorial movies only lightening up when he teamed up with Greta Gerwig on FRANCES HA.

But after seeing MR. JEALOUSY their team-up seems much more natural. It’s Baumbach’s brand of uncomfortable relationship comedy/drama, but lots of little things remind me of Anderson: an opening scene with a kid version of the main character, an omniscient narrator as if it’s a book, quick cutaway jokes, old-timey iris-in transitions, a reference to RULES OF THE GAME, some quirky musical choices. Anderson made BOTTLE ROCKET on the tails of KICKING AND SCREAMING and then this and RUSHMORE came out the same year and these things show that they had some overlapping stylistic interests, not to mention a love of male protagonists who are in love with their own bullshit in ways that go from kinda cute to endlessly frustrating. So I get it now.

MR. JEALOUSY might be the smallest movie in this series – Lions Gate opened it on 6 screens, it only ever expanded to 24, and it made just over $300,000. QUEST FOR CAMELOT was a flop in its fourth week and made a million more than that entire run just on that weekend. MR. JEALOUSY’s opening did beat Gore Verbinski’s MOUSE HUNT, which was on four times as many screens, but it was in its 25th week.

It doesn’t seem like a micro-budget, made-on-credit-cards type of movie though. It has as much production value as you need for a relationship movie like this. Whatever the budget was they had enough left over that they used it to make the shot-in-six-days HIGHBALL with a cast including Stoltz, Sciorra, Jacott, Eigeman, Bogdanovich and Baumbach, plus Justine Bateman, Rae Dawn Chong and Ally Sheedy. Baumbach considers it unfinished and took his name off of it, and it has a painfully bad Photoshop cover, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

Since Baumbach went on to plenty of acclaim and acknowledgment (KICKING AND SCREAMING, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, FRANCES HA and both of his Anderson collabs are in the Criterion Collection), you’d think this one would’ve been rediscovered by now, but as far as physical media goes it’s only available on an old non-anamorphic DVD with no significant extras. For now his widest seen film is MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED, which he co-wrote with Eric Darnell (director of ANTZ), Marc Hyman (OSMOSIS JONES) and Tom McGrath (director of THE BOSS BABY).

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2018 at 10:09 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Mr. Jealousy”

  1. The narrator is Baumbach, you are correct.

  2. grimgrinningchris

    June 20th, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Vern-

    Is this the movie where Stoltz does the Kermit The Frog impersonation? Whichever movie that actually is, I have never seen, but the trailer must have been on at least every other movie I rented that year and his little Kermit thing always made me chuckle.

  3. Interesting direction the ’98 series has gone it. Could it be that 1998 was the first year that audiences became truly dissatisfied with the mainstream blockbuster offerings and started gravitating towards other offerings? It’s not like indies took over the world, but they did well enough to maintain for a while, and then paved the way for people to discover television as an alternative to movie entertainment.

  4. I always liked the joke where Stoltz is like, “I’m sure he puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else” and then it quick cuts to Eigeman pulling both pant legs up simultaneously.

    I know Baumbach isn’t super fond of Mr. Jealousy. I believe I’ve heard him say in interviews that he doesn’t think it really works. I sort of get what he means, it goes for an old Lubitsch screwball vibe but the extremely uncomfortable and fairly unlikable protagonist doesn’t quite fit, but it has enough big and small laughs and such a game cast that I don’t think that matters that much.

    In conclusion, they need to start casting Chris Eigeman in movies again.

  5. grimgrinningchris

    June 20th, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    It IS the movie with the Kermit impression- I just found the VHS trailer. Heh…

  6. How hard did you search to find that picture of the Michelle Yeoh doll wearing a coat!?!? Haha!

  7. What?! You mean that the prison anecdotes, the mambo sock incident, the story of Toothpick Charlie–those were all fictional? (briefly wipes away tear) Cancel my subscription, assuming I have one.

    KICKING AND SCREAMING irritated the fuck out of me–although it probably makes more sense now, in an era where certain loan debt doom awaits anyone graduating college–so I’ve always held Baumbach a bit at arm’s length, despite how pleasant I found FANTASTIC MR. FOX and how genuinely insightful I found GREENBERG in places. Maybe I should try hunting this down; I do prefer rom-coms that are more bitter than sweet, and it seems like the guy can definitely do bitter.

  8. Hey Vern, I am a recovering alcoholic and, in the early days of recovery, would recall your USA Drinking Team (RETIRED) logo. It straight up helped, man, by way of providing an immediate visual prompt which was at once a connection to a broader fraternity of reformed drinkers. Even if it was a damn lie, it worked (along with other things). So bravo for that unintended consequence, you fraud.

  9. Thank you Raffles. That’s very generous of you to say. I liked that logo too.

  10. Vern, after a few years here I’ve learned that you’re usually at least a few steps ahead of me – if not of everyone here – but if this Summer of ’98 thing is drifting indie-ward, I really hope we get a review of SMOKE SIGNALS next week. After 20 years it’s still the benchmark for popular native-American film-making, and you’ll be able to link to your WINDTALKERS reviews.

  11. I can see how this movie could rankle. If there’s one emotion I just don’t get, it’s jealousy. If you feel jealousy in a relationship, it means you don’t trust that person. Why would you want to be in a relationship with someone you don’t trust? I don’t see what anybody gets out of it. Don’t fuckin’ stalk them to try and find a reason you should break up. Just break up. You already have a reason.

    But then again I’d rather never have sex again than spend one minute in a bad relationship, so my priorities and instincts might be a little different than most. I’m about as romantic as a tick these days.

  12. Certainly a weird one… Bittersweet with an almost odd emphasis on the bitter. But… as stated, enough small bits of gold to (almost) forgive it’s tonal oddities.

    I once read an interview with Eigeman where he stated if he knew that after Metropolitan he would only be offered smug, wise-apples of questionable intelligence and integrity roles afterwards, he never would have done it (he also said he signs autographs as “Nick Smith” because that’s what the seekers truly want). And while I can certainly understand becoming bored with playing variations on the same role over and over, the guy is really, really, really good at it. You have to play to your strengths, Chris…

  13. Oh no, Borg9 – that is one I skipped. That movie and its writer Sherman Alexie have been beloved in the northwest for many years, but having never seen it I was not eager to finally do it right after Alexie was disgraced in the way so many famous people have been lately. (Sorry if this is the first you’re hearing of that.) I’ll try to keep it in mind as something to see later.

  14. The main thing I remember about Smoke Signals is that it came out at the same time as Snake Eyes, and my aunt and cousins were visiting and my family insisted on going to see Smoke Signals even though I was quite adamant about seeing Snake Eyes. Having seen them both, I can confirm that 12 year old me was correct, Snake Eyes is the better movie.

  15. Majestyk, it might be a useless emotion, but it can hit hard. Even in long lasting, solid relationships. My favourite jealousy movie is Chabrol’s L’ENFER. If you’re going to see just one jealousy movie etc, etc…

  16. Oh no, Vern – that one really hurts! Although it’s my own fault: I find it reported now in lots of places I should’ve been capable of seeing it. A Miramax movie too.

    For all that, I’d say it’s still worth a watch, when you’re ready.

  17. Hang in there, John! I’m pretty sure that in about a month 12-year-old you will have Vern’s Summer of ’98 review of SNAKE EYES to bolster his case.

  18. Anyone remember that Gin Blossoms song Hey Jealousy? Must’ve been around 1998 too.

  19. I remember seeing this at a local arthouse theater during its initial run. I think I have always had a soft spot for this Baumbach movie in spite of its flaws (or perhaps because of its flaws). For me, the pleasures of the film are small. Eigeman’s character sobbing to Cat Stevens. Bridget Fonda’s character and her “disfluency.” Vince relaying Lester’s personal romantic history, but inserting himself as an adult.

    My favorite sight gag, though, involves Vince bragging to Lester how their therapy-by-proxy has improved his sex life, then cuts to him and Lucretia haplessly playing musical instruments in bed. It’s a

  20. a visual metaphor that I find to be more true as time passes.

    (Sorry, posting from my phone.)

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