Modern Romance (1981)
Written by Albert Brooks & Monica Johnson
Directed by Albert Brooks
Robert has decided it’s time to break things off with Mary. They have just drifted apart so it would be in their best interests to move on. This isn’t the first break up they have experienced, and as the movie unfolds, the audience realizes there will be more break-ups in their future. Robert tries to start a new life, seesawing between unbridled enthusiasm and wallowing in self-pity. He tries to take vitamins and pick up jogging but ultimately goes back to obsessing over Mary. Mary isn’t above it all though and keeps falling back into the same patterns. These two are comfortable in their co-dependent misery.
Albert Brooks received a phone call in 1981 from Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had just seen Modern Romance, and it has blown his mind. His first question to Brooks was, “How did you make this movie? I’ve been trying to make a movie about jealousy.” This should set the tone for what type of film Brooks ultimately ended up with, a work that touches on themes that could be framed in a much darker context, yet here, losing none of their bite, form a hilariously entertaining and thoughtful comedy. Brooks continues his very dry, subtle style of comedy muted even more than Real Life.
After watching Modern Romance, I was reflecting on the tone of mainstream comedic movies today, and they all seem to have common elements, mainly leaning into improvised passages that are encouraged to be explosions of reactionary dialogue. Everything from the latest Will Ferrell picture to Paul Feig’s Ghostbuster has eschewed plot or character for loose “jokey” moments which are in my opinion to the detriment of the overall film. I love improv comedy, but it works best only when with the most skilled creators and when used in the proper context. Modern Romance does employ improv but with a very intended purpose and in specific scenes, not as padding to stretch out the runtime.
Modern Romance will not follow the comedic rhythms you may have become accustomed to in contemporary comedic cinema. Instead, we have long stretches of conversations and character beats that are devoid of comedy. These moments are intended to establish information about the world and these people so that the humor comes out of an understanding of the characters, not just someone mugging in a reaction shot. The jokes are an integral piece of the overall story not tacked on to a script.
The most famous sequence fans of Modern Romance recall is the quaaludes scene where Brooks displays a terrible drug trip; caught in a restlessness that has him undressing for sleep, turning on and turning off music, making a phone call and setting up a date with a random woman from his Rolodex he barely knows and eventually telling off a colleague who calls and asks if it was okay that he’d ask Mary out. Brooks manages this series of events so deftly, in a single take that is quiet and thoughtful and ultimately very funny. Where many critics point to Woody Allen as a master of neurotic comedy along the vein of traditional Jewish humor, I argue that Albert Brooks is an underrated filmmaker in that regard. His later work, much like Allen’s has lost its edge, but this height of his creative powers eclipses so many others.
The organic way Brooks explodes with declarations of grand romantic gestures, inspired by the media he’s consumed, and then sinks into a sudden sarcasm, vomiting up accusations of infidelity at Mary is so real and such a beautifully horrific examination of the male ego. What makes this even better is that we aren’t witnessing a pivotal moment in the lives of Robert and Mary, this is their existence and has been for a long time. The ending coda implies it’s going to continue. In the end, what Robert can’t handle is the idea that someone he views as “his” could be with someone else and more importantly be happy with another. Robert would much rather he be miserable with Mary than she finds happiness without him whether it be in her career or relationships.