Jealous Guys Noah Baumbach and Eric Stoltz
by Andrea Meyer
What does it take to make it in the land of independent filmmaking?
Luck? Talent? Brains? A good personality? One thing is for sure -- it
takes more than just a good film. Do you need to be driven by shameless
ambition? Married to somebody famous? Have the recipe for some magical
concoction that includes all of the above?
Noah Baumbach, director of "Mr. Jealousy," which opens in New York and
LA this Friday, attributes his recent good fortune in the film biz to a
combination of ambition and naivete. When I asked him what he considered
the key to his success, he replied with a story about his college
interview at Brown, a school he didn't get into. The interviewer asked
what he wanted to do with his life, and he replied proudly, "'I want to
write, direct, and star in my own movies.' And then when I graduated
from Vassar, I decided that now was the time that I write and direct
movies. At the time I thought there was no way I could fail. I think
being naive and ambitious at the same time is a huge help, because you
only know the possibilities, or at least you think you know the
possibilities. The pitfalls don't show themselves." This from the guy
who also had a story published in "The New Yorker" when he was a mere
bright-eyed college grad.
Baumbach's first film "Kicking and Screaming" was released in 1995,
after its premiere at the New York Film Festival. He'd written the
screenplay immediately following college graduation. Then in 1996, he
was named one of Newsweek's "Ten New Faces of 1996." Baumbach had
already started thinking about "Mr. Jealousy" before he made "Kicking
and Screaming." In fact, he's been nursing the idea for the last nine
years. He says, "It was always exactly the movie I wanted to make next.
It was like--I'm making 'Kicking and Screaming' and then I'll make 'Mr.
Jealousy.' I was gearing up for it, and ever since that was finished I
was constantly trying to get this financed and then making it. I never
really stopped to think."
"Mr. Jealousy," a Lion's Gate release, tells the story of Lester Grimm,
played by Eric Stoltz, a man in his early thirties who is plagued by
irrational jealousy every time he is involved with a woman. His
particular affliction is an overwhelming obsession with his girlfriends'
past lovers. Baumbach, who claims that the film is only autobiographical
"in an abstract way," believes that men have a hard time dealing with
the fact that their girlfriend might have "a sexier past than you have.
Like when I was sixteen and had my first girlfriend, she'd already gone
out with someone who was twenty-five. And I'd barely made eye contact
with a girl. A lot of men haven't gotten over that, and they're well
into their thirties."
In Lester's case, he becomes fixated on the ex-lovers of his girlfriend
Ramona (Annabella Sciorra) to the point that he joins the therapy group
of her ex-boyfriend, best-selling novelist Dashiell Frank (Chris
Eigeman). He poses as his best friend, Vince (Carlos Jacott) whose
problems he starts confessing in order to find out what's so great about
ex-boyfriend Dashiell. This behavior might seem particularly obnoxious,
but both director and star feel that this craziness can be seen as a
natural progression of the usual jealous urges that relationships often
inspire. Eric Stoltz explains, "We've all been in a relationship where
the partner has had more experience, and I think for the guy that's much
more uncomfortable. And rather than sit back and enjoy the benefits of
her previous erotic encounters, I took the opposite tack and started
acting foolishly, obsessively, and much comedy ensues."
Of course the whole scheme blows up in Lester's face, when everyone
involved learns what a pathetic sneak he is. Along the way, there are
some hilarious conversations about the relationship game and interesting
insights into the ugly green monster that's hounding the poor schmuck. A
great cast, especially indie stars Sciorra and Stoltz, lend
believability to a film that could otherwise have amounted to an urban
tall tale. Stoltz even admits jokingly that in real life, "I became a
little obsessed (with Annabella). I had a little crush. I became a
little curious about her ex-s and her life. That's what we do. That's
what I do. There's a point where you know this is a job and you don't
bring it home. But basically one of our jobs is to fall in love with the
person that we are falling in love with on film." Part of the film's
effectiveness lies in Lester's credibility as a character. Even as he lies
to Ramona, deceives Dashiell along with his entire therapy group, and
otherwise acts like a complete creep, he remains a sympathetic character,
because we understand what drives Lester's lunacy.
"Mr. Jealousy" has an interesting premise, but not that much more
interesting than scores of other dialogue happy independent films about
young New Yorkers struggling with life and love and ultimately
translating that struggle into art. This particular film, however,
attracted a couple of stars and a distribution deal, which supports the
theory that Noah Baumbach has a guardian angel out there somewhere.
No sooner had Baumbach's second film "Mr. Jealousy" wrapped than
Baumbach shot "Highball," a comedy about three parties in one year, that
Lion's Gate will also release. He just used the cast and crew from "Mr.
Jealousy" and shot the film in one location in six days. Baumbach
explains, "It's always easier to keep shooting than it is to break down
and start up again. And you're in such a flow that you think anything is
possible." This is definitely becoming a theme. The man has super-human
faith and self-confidence, he has some talented friends who connect
their names to the projects, and voila -- movies happen, distributors
pay attention, a career evolves.
Noah Baumbach now claims to recognize the difficulties associated with
filmmaking, even if he hasn't been their victim. He admits, "I don't
think it's possible to get your first movie made without being woken up
to how hard it is to get a movie made." He says of "Mr. Jealousy,"
"Hey, this film could tank." And quickly knocks wood.