MODERN ROMANCE (1981)

  • Director: Albert Brooks
  • Writers: Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson
  • Starring: Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby, and James L. Brooks
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to the Criterion Channel, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Actor/Director Albert Brooks made several movies, mostly in the 1980s, that we would probably call “dramedies” today, though they’re somehow weirder than that. Imagine if Woody Allen actually could stand Los Angeles, generally went slightly higher concept, and was very slightly more laid back, and you get the idea. The Albert Brooks movies people today are most likely to have seen today are probably, as a director, Defending Your Life, and, as an actor, Broadcast News. But it was Modern Romance that really caught the eye of movie insiders, both when it came out in 1981 and now. I came to the movie because of hearing a recommendation by modern director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out), who identified it as one of his all-time favorite movies. Back in the 80s, Stanley Kubrick reportedly cold called Brooks to ask him, “How did you make this movie?” Kubrick claimed to have watched Modern Romance over and over and been flabbergasted by it. “I always wanted to make a great movie about jealousy,” Kubrick is reported to have said, “but I thought it was impossible. But you did it!”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and so was surprised to discover just how much of a high-wire act Brooks executes in Modern Romance, on which he is co-writer, director, and in basically every scene. In the first scene, his character Robert (a Hollywood film editor working on a clearly very silly science fiction movie) breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), then displays anxiety when she’s a little less broken up about it than he was hoping. He can’t work, he goes home, he takes quaaludes, he talks to his bird, he dances around to disco music, he talks to himself a lot, he calls a random woman from his rolodex, he tries to get in his car but is too high to drive. For a solid forty minutes, it’s just him kind of having a breakdown because of a break-up that he himself initiated. He keeps saying he’ll do one thing, then doing the exact opposite. He tries to go back to work, his assistant (Bruno Kirby) suggests he go home. He refuses, saying he will work to take his mind off of the break-up, but less than ten seconds later announces “I can’t do this! I have to go home!” Then when he gets home he calls the office and says he’d like to like come back in. He tries to call Mary, she picks up, then he hangs up, saying to himself that “it’s fate” that he didn’t actually talk to her.

This sequence just keeps going, much longer than I was expecting it to. As the movie continues, Robert and Mary get back together after he leaves a stuffed giraffe on her doorstep (in a memorable scene she describes all the things they still need to talk about to move forward, while simultaneously removing all her clothes and getting into bed with him), but he becomes insanely, bizarrely jealous. He looks at her phone bill (the 1981 equivalent of reading her text messages) and sees she’s made long-distance calls to New York. They go to a Hollywood party with his boss, and he can’t stand still while watching her make small talk to any other men and forces them to leave early. She tells him she has to work late and can’t go out to dinner, but when he calls her office she’s not there. He finds her at a restaurant, taking Japanese clients out to dinner. He notes that “she is the only woman here” and tries to get her to leave her work dinner to come with him. She eventually agrees to “go away with him” that weekend, a concept he came only came up with to try and get her to spend time with him. He admits he hadn’t made any reservations before and was lying about that, “but I thought to say that I did, and that’s what counts!”

They drive up into the mountains near LA to a cabin, where they have a big fight about him looking at her phone bill and other things. She comes to the key, blunt realization of the movie: “There’s something wrong with you!” “No there isn’t.” “Yes there is!” “No.” He argues that if he didn’t want to “control every aspect of her life” (his words) that it would mean he didn’t love her, and that what he thinks is wrong is that she doesn’t feel the same way about him. He asks her to marry him and she says yes. Final title cards say that Robert and Mary were married three weeks later in Las Vegas, divorced a month later, and are now engaged again.

Robert’s character is one of the greatest movie realizations of a very real type of human, but he’s not someone I enjoy spending this much time with. He is truly impossible to live with, yet somehow has found his match in Mary, who is also a very real type, the otherwise independent and successful woman who is with a man she definitely should not be with but she can’t quite bring himself to say no to him. He does like ten things in this movie that she should never, ever forgive him for. He should definitely be “canceled,” to use the 2020 parlance. But she keeps forgiving him, over and over, despite his seemingly congenital lack of self-awareness. He tells his assistant that “We never really figured out how to talk, but the sex is great.” The assistant asks, “Well, do you have to talk?” These are two people who both really can’t see the other.

Occasionally interspersed with this story are bits on the set of the science fiction movie Robert is working on, with a director played by James L. Brooks (no relation, though he directed Albert Brooks in Broadcast News) and the actor George Kennedy as the star (he is listed as playing both himself and “Zoron” in the credits). These are funny enough as fairly formulaic Hollywood satire, but feel entirely like they’re there to fill this out to movie length. Brooks seems to have had the idea for four or five long scenes between Robert and Mary, and then had to figure out how to make them into a 90 minute movie.

Watching Modern Romance, I both completely understand what people like Johnson and Kubrick see in it, and also have no desire to ever watch it again. It is a successful romance about two people who the audience knows definitely should not get together. In its own way, it’s a very different kind of disaster movie, in which we watch two people who otherwise have their crap together ruin two perfectly good lives. On the other hand, I could not get through twenty minutes of Brooks’ character without wanting to strangle him, and the movie never lets up with him. He is never redeemed, he never receives his comeuppance. The movie and its audience, and on some level Mary, know that there is something deeply, deeply wrong with him, but he never becomes aware of that in the slightest. So don’t be fooled by the title: Modern Romance is very different from your usual “romantic comedy,” and that is both its biggest strength and, for me, its downfall.

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