Good scripts are rare any time, not just in summer, so it's a pleasure to find The Truman Show, The Last Days of Disco and this nimble comic romance adding grace notes to the multiplex during the dog days. Mr. Jealousy is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, 28, who made a remarkably assured 1995 debut with Kicking and Screaming. Baumbach has a deceptively light touch, but a closer look reveals an abiding interest in form and character. There is more on the table here than twisted erotic fun; passions run deep.
Take Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz), the wanna-be novelist and protagonist of Mr. Jealousy. Lester never had sex with a woman he didn't think was fucking someone else. We are told so in narration that manages to be amusing and alarming. His green-eyed monster is taking on Godzilla proportions. Not good for a guy in his thirties who is trying to build a mature relationship with Ramona, played with smarts and sexiness by Annabella Sciorra.
Lester is jealous of Ramona and her ex-lover, Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), a best-selling author. How jealous? Lester joins Dashiell's group-therapy sessions to get more of the dirty details. To fool the group's leader, Dr. Poke (director Peter Bogdanovich in a sly turn), Lester uses the name of best friend Vince (Carlos Jacott) as a cover and Vince's engagement to Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) as an acceptable story to share in group.
The therapy scenes are hilariously perverse and provide Stoltz with a rare chance to show his skills at screwball farce. Eigeman nails every laugh as the celebrity author whose versions of the truth also veer from reality. How like Baumbach, the son of film scholars Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown, to catch a character in a lie that hinges on knowing whether director John Ford filmed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in color or black and white. Baumbach's cinema influences are varied (Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Woody Allen), but his style is all his own and hardly academic. Jealousy is hell on Lester and his relationships, and Baumbach offers his characters sympathy unclouded by sentiment. This is rigorous film comedy, diamond-hard and dazzling in its emotional facets. It's also proof positive that Baumbach is a talent worth watching.