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.
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).