Armed again with the comedy of despair, but with a far sight more focus than last time out, Kicking and Screaming director Noah Baumbach takes on one of the more coiled and resilient of the seven deadlies in Mr. Jealousy, a bright comedy of manners. Even as Eric Stoltz romantic comedies were becoming forced and generic by the time of Kicking and Screaming (his character was older than the ensemble cast there, and seemed designed to effect a cautionary presence at best), here his amiable every-mannerisms are sharpened on the wheel of rerouted desire, allowing him a smoldering slow-burn reminiscent of Nicolas Cage at his most combustible.
The affable Lester (Stoltz) has been cursed since childhood with the sinister insecurity of the green-eyed monster. Ever since he failed to rise to the occasion of his first goodnight kiss, only to learn the hard way that absence makes the heart go yonder, he has imagined the worst of each succeeding romantic attachment, and today carries the unseen burden of latent kookdom. When he is introduced to the aptly named Ramona Ray (Annabella Sciorra), a spitfire who promises to take no guff and seems more than up to the challenge, all seems rosy. Or, that is, until Lester is overcome with the twin impositions of unchecked suspicion and keeping this character flaw bottled up inside him.
He manages to keep it on the rails until one ex-boyfriend in particular--a fatuous literary phenomenon with the invented-by-committee-sounding moniker Dashiell Frank (secret weapon Chris Eigeman)--begins to leer back at him from smarmy book-jacket photos and occupy unsolicited anecdotes from Ramona's not-so-distant past. Unable to help himself, Lester takes to following Dashiell around Greenwich Village and the literary breeding ground of Washington Square Park, eventually happening into a group-therapy session moderated by the droll yet dyspeptic Dr. Poke (a rather schoolmarmish Peter Bogdanovich, no less the taskmaster for his role in ushering Eric Stoltz into stardom in Mask, albeit trapped inside a giant puppet head).
A self-declared novelist in his own right, Lester invents a momentary past for himself, borrowing liberally from his engaged friend Vince (Carlos Jacott, recycled from Kicking and Screaming), and quickly emerges as Dashiell's unexplained nemesis. When Vince, concerned with how his legacy is being represented and craving the benefits of therapy, stumbles into the group as well (sporting an inexplicable British accent to boot), the situation quickly spirals down into user-friendly farce and sets off a burning fuse of a plot that quickly resolves everyone's issues in a perfunctory fashion.
But unlike his previous effort--where characters waffled about and rattled on interchangeably, adept at wrangling glib repartee and pop-culture epiphanies, but clueless about the world that begins at the end of their nose--here the director imbues his smart but solipsistic creatures of habit with stated goals. This character motivation, no matter how old-fashioned, propels the action to a logical, far more satisfying conclusion.
Also on hand, making notable impressions, are Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Academy Award nominee for Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies), a curious choice for Vince's willful fiancee, Lucretia, in that she's both British and black, and Bridget Fonda as Dashiell's painfully stuttering girlfriend, a perfect bookend to her brutish hedonist in Jackie Brown. But best by far is Eigeman, playing if not against type, at least against expectations. So self-contained is this enfante-dweeb that he's rendered practically guileless, embracing Lester as a newfound friend merely because he's the first in a long while to pierce the smug veil of his autonomous existence. With roles now in two Baumbach and three Whit Stillman films, Eigeman is emerging as one of those unlikely character presences like Steve Buscemi who are always letter-perfect.
Along with Rory Kelly (Sleep With Me, Some Girls) and Stillman (the Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco trilogy), Baumbach seems to be emerging as one of the designated heirs of the Chat Pack, this gaggle of weisenheimers and regalers who are slowly perfecting the small art of cocktail banter. Despite the damage done heretofore in its name, it's encouraging to see there's nothing wrong with twentysomething drama that a step toward one's thirties can't cure.
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach. Starring Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, Carlos Jacott. Opens Friday.
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