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Love Is a Battlefield

Armed again with the comedy of despair, but with a far sight more focus than last time out (1995's Kicking and Screaming), director Noah Baumbach takes on perhaps the most coiled and resilient of the seven deadlies in his bright comedy of manners Mr. Jealousy.

The affable Lester (Eric Stoltz) has been cursed since childhood with the sinister insecurity of jealousy. Ever since he failed to rise to the occasion of his first good-night 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 now carries around the unseen burden of latent kookdom. When he is introduced to a spitfire named Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), all seems rosy. That is, until he is overcome with the twin challenges of dealing with unchecked suspicion and keeping this character flaw bottled up inside him.

He manages well enough until Ramona's ex-boyfriend, fatuous literary phenomenon Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman), begins to leer back at him from book-jacket photos and occupy unsolicited anecdotes from Ramona's not-so-distant past. Unable to help himself, Lester takes to shadowing Dashiell around Greenwich Village and the literary breeding ground of Washington Square Park; eventually he follows him into a group therapy session moderated by the droll yet dyspeptic Dr. Poke (a schoolmarmish Peter Bogdanovich).

A self-declared novelist in his own right, Lester invents a past for himself, borrowing liberally from the life of his engaged friend Vince (Carlos Jacott, who also appeared in Kicking and Screaming, along with Stoltz and Eigeman). When Vince, concerned with how his legacy is being represented and craving the benefits of therapy, stumbles into the group as well, the situation rapidly devolves into viewer-friendly farce and sets off a burning fuse of a plot that resolves everyone's issues in a perfunctory fashion.

But unlike Kicking and Screaming, in which characters rattled on interchangeably, adept at glib repartee but clueless about the world that begins at the end of their noses, here Baumbach 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.

On hand, and making notable impressions: Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies), a curious choice for Vince's willful fiancee Lucretia in that she's both British and black, and Bridget Fonda as Dashiell's stuttering girlfriend, Irene. As for Stoltz, he imparts a smoldering slow-burn to Lester that's reminiscent of Nicolas Cage at his most combustible. But best by far is Eigeman, playing, if not against type, at least against expectations. So self-contained is his enfant-dweeb Dashiell that the character is 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 an actor, like Steve Buscemi, who is always letter-perfect.

Along with Rory Kelly (Sleep With Me, Men) and Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco), Baumbach seems to be emerging as one of the leaders of the Chat Pack, a cabal of wisenheimers and regalers who are slowly perfecting the small art of cocktail banter. It's encouraging to see there's nothing wrong with twentysomething drama that a step toward one's thirties can't cure.

Mr. Jealousy.
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach. Starring Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, and Carlos Jacott.

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Paul Cullum

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