Friday, November 25, 2005

Mr. Jealousy d. Noah Baumbach, 1998

No. Look: utter frustrating passivity is part of the curse, man. Noah Baumbach's sophomore effort (did I just write "sophomore effort?" Oh. Dear. God. Kill me now.) is right-on, really, about what it means to be inexorably jealous. Like Lester (Eric Stoltz), I suffer from debilitating jealousy. It's a nasty, nasty disease, in the same way that alcoholism, drug addiction, and being that guy that talks incessantly in your creative writing class are. That is, it's a self-inflicted/self-suffering thing validated as a disease because, once you get knee-deep, it becomes hard to slog your way back out.

Lester dates Ramona (the not very good, nor very magnetic (but I'll get to THAT in a second) Annabella Sciorra.) Per his contract with jealousy, Lester begins investigating Ramona's sexually viscous past. This leads to her ex-boyfriend writer, Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman.) Jealousy knows absurdity not, so it isn't very surprising - to the jealous viewer, that is - to see Lester join a group therapy session under the quasi-pseudonym of his best friend, the same group session Dashiell attends, only to seethe at any possible mention of Ramona. (Dear God, please don't allow this to be me in ten years. Or twenty. Or two.)

It's important to interject here the nature of true jealousy. It's not purely a love thing, as Lester so eloquently shows us. Ramona isn't attractive on purpose - I first found it a fault that Lester & Ramona's relationship didn't seem authentic, but then realized that - in jealous - it isn't really the love that matters, it's the assurance of supremacy. Lester's jealous of Dashiell not because Dashiell made love to Ramona, but because he can better describe the love-making. Follow me: Lester's an aspiring writer, one who so wants to be the "voice of the generation," but Dashiell has already been bestowed with such accolades. So it's not that Dashiell merely had sex with Ramona (merely? I shouldn't say merely.), it's the possibility that Ramona had sex with someone better than Lester. The idea that you're not the absolute best in every category that your significant other has seen is the fungus that eats at the heart of a jealous person. Add to this that Lester's plain jealous of Dashiell's writing skills. See, simple jealousy can be part of the admixture too.

Ok: the other thing is that this film is so clearly made for me (btw: self-aggrandizing solipsism tends to go hand in hand with jealousy.) Lester is an aspiring writer/cinemaphile/voracious reader/misanthrope. (I'm probably projecting that last part, but the basic units are there for the construction of an arguable thesis.) In addition, the film is made in a style recalling Mike Leigh & Woody Allen, and presciently anticipating The Royal Tenenbaums-era Wes Anderson. No wonder Anderson fingered Baumbach to co-write The Life Aquatic.

Finally, the climax is note-perfect: not with a bang, but a whimper. The whole melange of betrayal, doubt, and misunderstanding wells its way to the surface in the middle of a New York street. No raised voices, no honking cars, no suspenseful music - just a handful of people unable to understand the absurdity of each other. That Baumbach was able to rein the scene in, preventing the actors & editors both from overdoing it, shows a solid amount of skill at the helm.

The last scene - inevitable possible getbacktogetherness - is forgivable considering that Baumbach gives the viewer no real reason to assume anything beyond a one night stand. (No, the wedding setpiece is not a real reason.) And Baumbach's self-authored voice-over throughout - which at first seems to be crying out for sympathy - is, in the end, anthropologically adroit; it is the voice of a clinical documentarian, working through a case study of a neurotic jealous man. Sympathy is not the end result - a call to action, preventative or rehabilitative, is.


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