“You have to be fearless about it, you can’t go, Oh gee, am I gonna come off too this or too that? Don’t make the movie then, don’t do that subject if that’s what you’re afraid of, play a lovable teddy bear.” – Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks has always been a fearless performer unafraid to play characters that are unattractive (Taxi Driver) or arrogant (Broadcast News). In the films he wrote and directed, Brooks helped pioneer the uncomfortable comedy, which featured characters stumbling into awkward situations and off-kilter comic pacing that often involved stretches with no jokes that cleverly built-up to a punchline or joke that wasn’t always blatantly telegraphed. One can see this influence in the comedy of Garry Shandling, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. among others.
One of Brooks’ best films is Modern Romance (1981), a funny, wryly observed comedy about love featuring the comedian as a neurotic guy repeatedly breaking up and getting back together with his girlfriend played by Kathryn Harrold. The film famously did not test well with audiences back in the day and when he refused to make any changes the powers that be released it with little fanfare only for it to promptly die on the vine. He subsequently sunk into a deep funk only to be rescued by none other than Stanley Kubrick who told him how much he admired the film.
The first scene – where Robert Cole (Brooks) breaks up with girlfriend Mary Harvard (Harrold) – establishes the film’s off-kilter vibe as they order food and she endearingly wipes her lipstick off his cheek before he lowers the boom. She tries to prolong it by chitchatting about his work – he’s a film editor – until he forces the issue, calling their relationship, “a no-win situation,” like Vietnam. This isn’t the first time they’ve broken up and Robert comes off as a little paranoid and majorly neurotic. Brooks deftly juggles tones in this scene, inserting sly, little jokes amidst the heaviness of the moment, like when an understandably upset Mary gets up and leaves only for Robert to say, “Come back, we can at least eat!”
Robert goes to work and confides in his best friend and co-worker Jay (Bruno Kirby), giving himself a half-hearted pep talk: “There’s ten million people in this city alone. How difficult can it be to find one perfect woman? It’s not that big a deal,” to which his friend deadpans, “I haven’t but maybe you can.” They try to build each other up in an amusing moment but it feels like they are going through the motions.
Upset, Robert goes home and proceeds to call Jay on the phone. Brooks captures their entire conversation in one long, uninterrupted take as we see how the breakup with Mary has started to impact on him. He then calls Jay back after the two Quaaludes kick in and wanders through his house rambling on and stumbling around in a funny scene. Again, Brooks lets the scene play out as we follow Robert around his place, talking to himself after hanging up with Jay. Most other filmmakers would have cut away or used to music to manipulate our emotions but not Brooks who only uses music when it feels right – in this case, when Robert decides to put on a record, saying, “God, I have so many great albums. I love my albums,” and this other amusing gem, “Music is the doctor of the soul.” However, the song he puts on makes him sad and he takes the record off. This awkwardness feels intimate, like we shouldn’t be seeing this and it only adds to the authenticity of the moment. Here’s a guy who feels lost in life. He’s broken up with the woman he loves and now deeply regrets it.
Robert convinces himself that he’s starting a new life and so he loads up on vitamins, buys a new running outfit (from a salesman played hilariously by Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein), and then proceeds to clumsily try running with predictably poor results. He tries to get over Mary through sheer force of will and it is funny seeing him try. The rest of Modern Romance plays out his attempts to get over Mary and then his attempts to win her back.
The lovely Kathryn Harrold is ideally cast as Brooks’ love interest and one can see why Robert is crazy about Mary – she’s smart, beautiful and good at her job, which makes us wonder why they broke up in the first place? Early on, it isn’t clear why they keep breaking up and getting back together but by the last third of the film it becomes obvious – they don’t communicate very well. He doesn’t trust her and is insanely jealous, letting things build up until they become an issue.
Bruno Kirby is well-cast as Brooks’ best friend and they play well off each other, especially early on when, after just having broken up with Mary, Robert confides in Jay. Later on, he pops up in a strong sequence that shows how the two men solve a post-production issue that the director tells them to resolve. I like that it’s a comedy where we actually see the characters working at their jobs. Brooks goes one step further and actually provides some detail on what a film editor does, which gives us an insider’s look that feels true.
The inspiration for Modern Romance came out of a personal experience Albert Brooks had:
“Two year ago, I was going out with a woman. The relationship had ended but I found myself driving around her house, over and over again. I felt pinned to my car. I couldn’t do anything else but keep circling the house and I couldn’t even figure out why I was doing it. Finally, I thought, why don’t I pull over and write this down? It might make a good film.”
Brooks actually incorporated that very anecdote into the finished film. He chose Robert to be a film editor because he had never seen a movie about Hollywood that featured one as the protagonist. Furthermore, he said, “I would not have made Modern Romance unless I had that kind of trouble in my life with breaking up. I didn’t do it as much as that character, but I did it enough to be able to write and do that, so for comedic purposes, I take behavior that I might do and I square it.”
Initially, Columbia Pictures was so happy with Modern Romance that then-studio head Frank Price flew Brooks and his co-star Kathryn Harrold from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the executive’s private jet for a test screening. It went so badly that Price ditched Brooks and flew back to L.A. Later, the two men met and addressed the problems the audience had with the film. People couldn’t understand why Robert was so unhappy and Price wanted Brooks to add a scene where he goes to a psychiatrist. Brooks refused because he didn’t know why the character was so unhappy as well. His then-agent Michael Ovitz urged him to add the scene in order to appease the studio. Brooks refused and changed agents. The studio released the film with little support and it performed poorly at the box office, polarizing critics and leaving Brooks depressed.
Then, out of the blue, Stanley Kubrick called Brooks and told him, “This is a brilliant movie – the movie I’ve always wanted to make about jealousy. You will not understand what I’m saying, but you must believe me: The studio decides before the movie is ever released how it’s going to do. It has nothing to do with you.” Kubrick’s call revitalized Brooks’ self-esteem. Over time, Brooks began to realize that his film resonated with people as he recounted in a profile for The New York Times, “A guy came running up to me on the street the other day and he says, ‘You’re the guy! You’re the guy! I got married because of that movie!’ I said: ‘Great. That’s a terrible reason to get married.’”
Modern Romance carries on the proud tradition of single guy romantic comedies like Annie Hall (1977), The Lonely Guy (1984), and High Fidelity (2000) by putting his own distinctive stamp on the genre. He doesn’t go for broad gags, opting for a more understated approach, setting up a situation and letting it play out organically unlike most comedies that go for an easy punchline.
“There are no gags in the picture. No zany comics. There are real people in real situations carried to a logical – or illogical – extreme. If the outcome is funny, it’s because life itself is funny.” – Albert Brooks
Brooks understands that a lot of comedy comes out of anger and pain and isn’t afraid to mine this territory for honest observations about love. He also understands that most of us don’t have an easy time when it comes to love and relationships take work. He also acknowledges the awkwardness of life and isn’t afraid to play someone riddled with self-doubt, which makes his character relatable. One has to admire Brooks for not being content to merely make a film that is nothing more than a joke delivery machine but actually try to say something about love and how people relate to each other.
Barron, Angela. “Post Modern Romance.” Editors Guild Magazine. September-October 2005.
Modern Romance Production Notes. Columbia Pictures. 1981.
Raab, Scott. “Albert Brooks Knows the Whole Hellish Truth.” Esquire. January 29, 2007.
Smith, Gavin. “All the Choices: Albert Brooks Interview.” Film Comment. July/August 1999.
Svetkey, Benjamin. “Albert Brooks Takes a Look Back on his Career.” Entertainment Weekly. May 30, 2003.
Weber, Bruce. “Reflections on Himself.” The New York Times. March 17, 1991.