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"Modern Romance" is Albert Brooks's masterpiece, and one of the funniest, most engaging romantic comedies ever made.
Brooks's first three films certified his status as a legend in the minds of comedy fans. Often described as a "jockier version of Woody Allen," Albert cultivated his own cinematic shtick during the late seventies and early early eighties -- a technique which capitalizes on a number of elements that quickly became Brooks trademarks, particularly self-parody; Bob Newhart-style telephone conversations (and man-against-the-odds conversations, where Brooks protagonists get in way over their heads, but make laughable, quixotic attempts to fight their way out); and gags built entirely around the use of a specific (often confined) setting. In "Modern Romance," these elements come to full fruition.
As in "Real Life" (1979) and "Lost in America," (1985) Brooks plays an exaggerated version of himself -- a neurotic, compulsive, self-obsessed opportunist. He's Robert Cole, a film editor for American International Pictures, who breaks up with his girlfriend, bank teller Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), because they can't communicate ("You've heard of a no-win situation, right?... No? You've never heard of one? Vietnam...? This...?") but instinctively regrets his decision and spends a miserable night strung out on quaaludes, stumbling around his house, crashing into walls, and calling friends to talk about deep feelings. When Robert finally launches a successful, obsessive attempt to win Mary back with a porch full of stuffed animals, they can't stay together for more than two days, because he's such a paranoid shmuck that he won't give her enough freedom to function.
"Modern Romance" is a classic example of how comic genius (and clever presentation) can lift an ordinary premise to the level of brilliance. The picture brims with hundreds of hilarious one-liners and running gags. The phrase, "I love you" becomes a piece of shtick, in itself, because Cole uses it like a self-explanatory mantra, to account for his obsessive behaviour. ("This is only happening because I love you."; ""The problem is that I'm in *love*...!" "Here we go... I LOVE YA!") The most impressive aspect of the picture is that Brooks carries 80% of the scenes completely alone -- he talks to himself while driving, shaving, checking his vitamin cabinet ("Got any B6? No B6? Outta C? Got E... the old standby!") -- and manages to be consistently hilarious and credible!
Cole is so obnoxious, and yet -- somehow -- so painfully funny and believable (remember Charles Grodin's self-destructive character in "The Heartbreak Kid"?), that while we're aghast that he'd be insensitive enough to tell an old friend, "I'll call you right back" and write the number in the air with his finger, or to interrupt his girlfriend's business dinner with clients in the middle of a crowded restaurant, we're laughing the entire time.
And yet, I think the Cole character is only one of the film's two major strengths. The other: "Modern Romance" seems to challenge (though not defy) the boundaries of cinematic milieux. According to some sources, Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by this film, which fell in-between "The Shining" (1980) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) -- in one story, Kubrick called Brooks after he attended a theatrical screening of "Modern Romance," and the two tried to strike up a friendship. That story may be apocryphal, but if not, I wouldn't be surprised. Here's why: in "Modern Romance," screenwriter/director Brooks manages to give an illusion of greater depth to the cinematic world than what we normally sense in movies -- the structure of the film, in a way, seems driven by the central character. It feels as if Cole has freedom beyond the confines of the screen -- the ability to move into other *environments* -- eg. the film editing booth, Santa Monica-area stores, the Santa Monica freeway, Idlewhile. (He spends half of the film simply driving from location to location, and making each decision on the gut level, led by whims). The hilarious scenes where Brooks edits a B budget Sci-fi picture, in fact, have *nothing* to do with the film's central premise of Robert-winning-Mary-back. So, why include them? Perhaps because it gives the characters, in a way, more mobility -- and creates the anti-Brechtian illusion of a vast world beyond the confines of the movie set.
Now: if we think about the structure of "Full Metal Jacket," where Kubrick cemented the audience in one world (the military base) and restarted halfway through with another (the war), or -- even earlier -- "2001: A Space Odyssey," where the structure resembles three loosely-linked films, each with separate environments (The Dawn of Man/The Voyage to Jupiter/ Jupiter), we'll notice that Kubrick, in an overt, explicit way, pushed cinematic boundaries.
Brooks, on the other hand, merely nudges the boundaries out a little bit -- and because of that, the film feels more free and less restrictive than the reality of standard narrative cinema.
On a final note: though it wasn't intended as a period piece when shot in late 1980 and released in March of '81, twenty years since Modern Romance's general release have given it a distinctly un-modern, period feel. The music ("Another One Bites the Dust," "She's Out of My Life," "A Fifth of Beethoven," etc.) the references to films from the late seventies and early eighties (Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon," Cimino's "Heaven's Gate,") the early-80s attire (like the brown jumpsuit Cole wears), and Cole's analog answering machine all evoke feelings of nostalgia for that brief, post-disco, pre-Reagan span of time that appeared and disappeared all too quickly.
A quick piece of trivia about "Modern Romance": according to Albert Brooks fan sites, Brooks and Harrold dated briefly in real life, following this picture. Harrold can be seen in Jaglom's "Someone to Love" (1985), playing herself at a party for singles.
Other, similar films you should check out if you enjoy this picture: "The Heartbreak Kid" (1971), "Cross My Heart" (1987), Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers" (1984) with Harrold, Brooks's "Lost in America" (1985).