Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Albert Brooks' second feature film was far from a hit in 1981; like his previous Real Life it attracted admiring critical acclaim but ended up finding its audience on cable television. Modern Romance has no high concept to fall back on and few endearing secondary characters to divide our attention. It's ninety minutes, much of it monologue, in the company of the most annoyingly neurotic character we've ever met. We all know people like Brooks' Robert Cole, but they usually have mitigating qualities of some kind -- charm, talent, a higher purpose. Robert Cole is such a mass of problems we spend the whole running time of this "comedy" squirming in our seats, hoping against hope that we're nothing like him.
Los Angeles film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) is a neurotic when it comes to his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). When they're together he feels bored and unfulfilled and compulsively breaks up with her; but as soon as they're apart he stalks her and begs to be taken back. The pattern of jealousy and insecurity then starts all over again.
Michael Ritchie once said that American living started to fall apart when we realized that we no longer lived real lives, but instead "had lifestyles." Albert Brooks' comedy seems to be about his neurotic, egotistical character's inability to deal with the real world except in terms of possession, entitlement and the false sense of security achieved by spending money; when the going gets tough, Robert Cole inevitably goes shopping.
Brooks isn't the comedy victim in Modern Romance unless we want to consider him his own worst enemy. Health food and sporting goods retailers lie in ambush to profit from his insecurity. He's a successful film editor but we don't know why, as his loyal assistant Jay (Bruno Kirby) invariably shows better judgment than he does with the inane Star Wars ripoff movie they're making. Robert Cole isn't just imperfect, he's a painful train wreck of a personality using a lifestyle as a disguise to make it appear that he's an adult. We can't forgive Robert's behavior as symptom of a breakup with his girlfriend Mary, as a perpetual self-willed instability appears to be his normal state of existence. Supremely selfish, Robert finds any excuse to coddle and pamper himself while dishing out thoughtless abuse in all directions. He lies to his employers and his mother, and he's unforgivably rude to Ellen (Jane Halleren of Lianna), a hapless date he arranges while in a panic over Mary.
Robert's most obvious victim is Mary, a bank executive who sees his good side (?) and only wants a fair shake in romance: A measure of trust and dependable companionship. What she gets is a boyfriend from Hell. Robert treats her as if she's another consumer object, somebody to satisfy his needs. Like anything else he buys, once he gets her home he doesn't really know if he wants her.
When they aren't physically in bed, Robert engages in a predictable pattern of psychological abuse. There is no rest. Without his artificial dramatics Robert thinks that their relationship is stagnating, that things are wrong, that she must be cheating on him. He's really projecting his own emptiness and hypocrisy -- although it's never mentioned again, he's the one with lipstick on his face in the very first scene. Robert badgers Mary until they break up, at which point he experiences about five minutes of peace before crumbling into insecurity. Then he starts the pursuit all over again, practically stalking poor Mary until she decides and accepts him back again. As soon as they're together, Robert starts in again with the jealousy and mistrust. It's a pathetic exaggeration of reality; Robert Coles are certainly out there and all of us males can recognize our own infantile tendency to be like him in some ways. They say comedy is closely related to pain and cruelty, and Modern Romance is probably proof positive.
An accomplished comedian, Albert Brooks shows his own maturity by never reaching out for audience sympathy. When Robert Cole is feeling sorry for himself he's at his worst, not his best. Modern Romance received an "R" rating for a bit of nudity (a seeming requirement in 1981) and drug references. Near the beginning of the show Brooks does an extended "misery monologue" on quaaludes, showing how severely they impair his judgment. He's not a funny drunk, although it is amusing to see him pacing his apartment among his electronic toys -- the phone answering machine, his record player -- hoping they'll cheer him up.
Modern Romance is particularly accurate in its view of the movie business as seen from the editorial suite. "Nobody knows anything" and the only person with a creative handle on the feature Cole is cutting is his assistant, who can fix an ailing sequence when left alone. Naturally, Robert has to come in and change it the next day, to prove that he's "more creative." Then his director (James L. Brooks!) trumps Robert's bad judgment by changing the film back. In all of these decisions "creativity" is a tyranny imposed by the pecking order: Robert not only has to accept the director's decision, he has to pretend that he agrees that the decision is the correct one. In Hollywood, the illusion of creative harmony always flows down the pecking order, never up. In their insecurity, so-called creatives are looking not for collaboration but confirmation of the rightness of their decisions.
This incestuous little farce breaks down in the mixing studio, where the union re-recording crew couldn't care less about Robert's need to beef up actor George Kennedy's footsteps in a corridor scene. He's patronized and tolerated; the head mixer would rather read the paper. At the end of the session they announce the next client: They're remixing the short version of Heaven's Gate.
In his heart of hearts Robert knows he's unworthy of Mary. His jealousy is just more insecurity in action. He panics to think that she's going out with someone else, even when he's broken up with her. He's pathological about going through her phone records. He rudely interrupts her business dinner and drags her away from a Hollywood party when some other men show an interest in her. No sooner are they in the door then two executives invite her into the bathroom to snort cocaine.
Modern Romance is funny but it's also painful to watch. Perhaps it should be labeled as a new subgenre, a Public Service Comedy. There are millions of Robert Coles out there unable to step back and see how unnecessarily self-destructive they are. What they and Robert Cole really need is to see Modern Romance. Maybe they'd realize that they could be great people to live with only a little adjustment!
Sony's DVD of Modern Romance is a great enhanced transfer of what might be Albert Brooks' last film to hit DVD. The soundtrack is loaded with smartly chosen pop hits from the era, including Robert Cole's anthem to self-delusion, "You Are So Beautiful." There are no extras, which is a shame as we'd love to find out how Albert Brooks and his co-writer Monica Johnson worked together. The cover illustration uses a visual of Albert Brooks and Kathryn Harrold on a roller coaster, an image that neither appear in the movie nor represents it well ... the chaos affecting the romantic couple comes from Robert Cole himself, not some outside force.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Modern Romance rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson