I put Noah Baumbach’s 1997 Mr. Jealousy in my Netflix queue recently after many years of ignoring it, having been waved off by bad reviews when it first came out. I had always liked his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about young men who fail to launch after graduation, and when I saw last year’s The Squid and the Whale, which I liked tremendously (not surprising — so did everyone else), I decided I ought to finally get around to seeing this film, which unfortunately dropped like a stone into the deeps and was probably most responsible for it taking Baumbach four years to find funding for Squid.
This turns out to be completely unfair — Mr. Jealousy is in fact a fine film and a purebred romantic comedy, the kind of small, semi-independent film that ought to be able to bring in a good profit and allow its writer-director to move on securely to other, riskier projects. The film follows the relationship of Lester (perpetually jealous and suspicious) and Ramona (who can’t say no, especially to old boyfriends); after seeing Ramona’s successful writer ex-boyfriend by chance on the street, Lester joins his therapy group under a false name in order to hear more about Ramona’s past. This could be a disastrously leaden concept, but under Baumbach’s care it’s thoroughly enjoyable, low-key and relaxed in its pacing, yet bright and funny, resembling but not imitating the better Woody Allen films. (Baumbach likes and pities his characters, while Allen generally loathes them; it’s really all the difference in the world, despite the New York locations and comic narration.)
What I appreciated most about this film was Baumbach’s careful use of formal repetition; certain events, sounds, and images keep coming back, invested with different meanings: a shot of Ramona’s pebbled-glass apartment door, the phone ringing in her apartment, Lester trying (and failing) to read Dashiell’s autobiographical short stories about Ramona, the marquee at a local theatre, handshakes and clasped hands (sometimes isolated by an iris, sometimes not). And as a net of lies is woven and characters pretend to be one another, another level of repetition and mirroring is added, until, at the climax, it all comes undone in a dazzling explosion of mirrored and overlapping dialogue.
These formal repetitions are not overdone or overemphasized, but they do add a level of sophistication and playfulness that elevates the film above its romantic comedy peers without making it inaccessible. More impressive, he knows when not to repeat — at the end of the film, when Lester reflects on their relationship, there’s a montage of his memories, none of which have appeared in the film up to that point. At exactly the moment when most filmmakers would start milking earlier images for emotional juice, Baumbach generously gives us a whole new set of romantic moments between Lester and Ramona, adding to our understanding of their relationship and providing some ballast against the sense of betrayal in the climactic fight.