Noah Baumbach's movies are so modest it's easy to overlook that he's actually doing something rather difficult. Pulling off an ensemble comedy of manners is no walk in the park, and now Baumbach has done it twice. Baumbach was just 25 when he made his debut with "Kicking and Screaming," and it felt like the first authentic movie about his generation. Funny and observant, it carried you along until the emotion of the finale caught you by surprise. Its view of college grads came from the inside rather than from some studio development executive's "concept."
Baumbach's new movie, "Mr. Jealousy," isn't quite as assured, nor as touching. There are scenes that are meant to be funnier than they are, and when that happens, the entire rhythm of the movie falters and the dead spaces become a bit uncomfortable. And since Baumbach is taking a more overtly satirical approach to the characters here, the emotion he tries for in the wind-up doesn't quite come off. These are small complaints, though. Baumbach is one of the wittiest and most literate comic screenwriters working in the movies right now. And as a director he has a light, glancing touch. Pushing for a laugh seems beyond him. Baumbach has the sort of ease that, a few pictures down the road, you can easily imagine evolving into comic grace.
The "Mr. Jealousy" of the title is one of those comic characters whose name defines them. Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz) is a blocked writer working in New York as a substitute teacher. He's good-looking, charming and -- on the surface -- easygoing. He doesn't have any problem attracting women, but he's so bedeviled by the very thought of the men in their past that he manages to screw up every relationship. (In a flashback, we find out that Lester's college girlfriend broke up with him because he was never around; he was too busy skulking around campus shadowing her ex-boyfriends.) As "Mr. Jealousy" opens, Lester has just started dating Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), a Ph.D. candidate who's working as a guide at the Brooklyn Museum. One of her exes is Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), a Jay McInerney-ish writer whose first collection of stories has won him acclaim as the voice of his generation. Lester becomes so preoccupied with Dashiell that he can't even read the guy's book when Ramona gives it to him as a present. Wandering around Manhattan one day, he sees Dashiell on the street and follows him to his group therapy appointment. Using a false name, Lester presents himself to the shrink (played by director Peter Bogdanovich) and becomes a member of the group. It's a nifty idea for a comedy of romantic neuroses, and Baumbach doesn't leave it at that. The name Lester gives is that of his best friend, Vince (Carlos Jacott). Soon he's using Vince's life for material in group. The kicker is that the advice the members of the group give "Vince" proves so beneficial to the real Vince that the doubts he had about marrying his longtime fiancie, Lucretia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of "Secrets and Lies"), vanish and the two of them find a new sparkle in their relationship. (When Lester decides he wants to leave the group, Vince reacts as if it's the most callous thing he ever heard.)
Baumbach is a natural at handling actors. If his movies have a secret weapon, it's his combination of perfect casting and what you might call creative miscasting. In the former category are Stoltz and Eigeman. Stoltz's high, airy voice and perpetual boyishness has, at times, caused him to be taken for granted, regarded as a lightweight. What's so funny about his performance here is that his surface of casual reasonableness remains unruffled even as his behavior grows more and more outrageous. In one scene he asks Ramona if she perhaps shouldn't have waited instead of sleeping with him on the first date and she realizes that he's even jealous of himself. Stoltz gets laughs here merely by flashing that becalmed nice-guy smile of his as he tells one lie after another. His feathers get ruffled only when, in group, he berates Dashiell mercilessly, telling him that his worries about writing and the demands of his newfound celebrity are a load of pompous bull. It's a sleek joke when Dashiell tells Lester that these challenges help him get out of his own head and soon the two of them have become sort-of buddies. Eigeman, sporting long hair, one of those almost-beards and a series of simple and elegant designer suits, does another variation on the preppy sulkiness that's his specialty. I've no idea what his range might be, but the marvel of his comic performances is that, though he always seems to be doing the same thing, he's funny every time you see him. Put it this way -- if you were ringing a cash register or waiting on tables and you saw Eigeman coming, you'd think, "trouble." Like everything else about Baumbach's comedies, Eigeman's parody of a full-of-himself young literary hotshot never violates its surface reality, and yet it keeps scoring points.
The surprise of the movie is Sciorra as Ramona. She was very appealing when she first appeared in Nancy Savoca's "True Love," but in subsequent performances she seemed used up, as one director after another cast her for her "authenticity." She's lighter here. She doesn't quite have the silliness in her to pull off Ramona's occasional clumsiness, but when, for example, she coos to Jean-Baptiste over the "adult" pleasure of meeting a girlfriend for coffee, she reminds you of what was charming about her in the first place. As Vince, long-faced Carlos Jacott seems to be a kid who's woken up in an adult body and stolen into the grown-up world without anyone noticing. When Vince joins the group under an assumed identity, an Englishman, just the way Jacott wears an ascot is enough to get you giggling. Jean-Baptiste doesn't have nearly enough to do, but she and Jacott are such an odd match that they make sense together.
Baumbach opens the movie with Georges Delerue's theme to "Jules and Jim," and the voice-over narration that he employs is taken directly from French New Wave movies. Baumbach (whose parents are film critics Georgia Brown and Jonathan Baumbach) is trying for a comic version of that lyricism here (at one point he even echoes a throwaway gag from "Shoot the Piano Player"). The trick for him is going to be to integrate those impulses with his leanings toward farce. As events in "Mr. Jealousy" grow more entangled, there is no corresponding escalation in the pace of the movie, and Baumbach misses out on some laughs. Other sequences, like the one with Bridget Fonda as Eigeman's girlfriend, don't work at all (though she's very good). But "Mr. Jealousy" is one of those movies where the less assured passages are a good sign, the mark of a director trying something new. The movie doesn't have quite the visual sheen it needs, though Baumbach is well on his way to achieving the soft pinks and grays that have distinguished some of the loveliest urban comedies. On the basis of his first two movies, Baumbach seems to be a filmmaker whose movies correlate to the age he is when he makes them. But these satires of the self-justifications and self-involvement of smart people feel anything but self-involved. If I were his age, I'd be proud to claim such a sophisticated and assured comic filmmaker as one of my generation. As it is, I'm just glad he's around.