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FW Weekly Mr. Jealousy

Director's second effort shows he's fulfilling talent

By Joe Leydon

JULY 20, 1998:  You probably haven't heard a lot about writer-director Noah Baumbach yet. Trust me, you will. Mr. Jealousy is only his second feature - after his well-received debut, Kicking and Screaming - but it's a smart and sexy and sharply amusing romantic comedy that may remind you of the early works of Woody Allen and Francois Truffaut. More important, it demonstrates that Baumbach isn't just a promising talent. He's already at work on fulfilling his promise.

Set in a brightly idealized Manhattan, Mr. Jealousy focuses on Lester (Eric Stoltz), a would-be writer and part-time substitute teacher who's enchanted by Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), an attractive museum guide. It's not the first serious romance for either one of them - and in Lester's view, that's a serious problem. As we learn from a flashback cued by the movie's omniscient narrator, Lester was betrayed years ago his high-school sweetheart. This traumatic incident left him chronically mistrustful of every significant other in every subsequent relationship. As he result, he always suspects the worst, even while he's having the best of times with Ramona.

Things get complicated when one of Ramona's ex-boyfriends writes a best-selling book that causes critics to dub him "the voice of his generation." Lester is unimpressed - "I bet my writing's more the voice of our generation than his!" - and, of course, obsessively jealous. To learn more about Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), the object of his obsession, Lester impulsively enters the writer's therapy group under an assumed name. Much to his great surprise, Lester finds Dashiell is a deeply insecure fellow who's seriously spooked by his new-found fame. Much to his considerable discomfort, Lester also finds himself becoming Dashiell's friend and confidant, as the writer sets aside his arrogant persona and even introduces Lester to his shy girlfriend (a nice cameo by Bridget Fonda).

Stoltz and Sciorra are perfectly cast in this wise and witty story about an imperfect romance. The supporting cast, including filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich as the therapy group leader, is unusually strong and uniformly excellent. Of particular note is Eigeman, who subtly reveals a sensitive and sympathetic side to an initially off-putting character. Eigeman's performance is just one of many pleasant surprises to savor in a sleeper that is the most pleasant surprise of the summer movie season.

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