Albert Brooks is so underappreciated. Modern Romance was his second movie as a director. He’s also the writer and the star. At this point he had worked with Saturday Night Live, was on Johnny Carson a fair bit, and appeared in Taxi Driver (he improvised most of the dialogue for the part, which was underwritten). Real Life, his first film, was a send-up of docusoap An American Family.
Modern Romance is about a film editor, Robert Cole, who has an off/off relationship with his girlfriend, Mary Harvard (played by Katherine Harrold). Robert is a totally neurotic, self-absorbed idiot who can’t figure out whether he should be with her or not. When “romantic” films work, it’s because they are based on obsession or insanity (like the films of Howard Hawks). This is something that Brooks definitely understands.
Robert is in the middle of editing a science fiction film for American International Pictures, a bad Z-movie with George Kennedy, who appears as himself. The film is full of in-jokes about Hollywood—for example, there’s a great bit where they’re doing the Foley work for the film and on the loudspeaker you hear the announcement of the next project that’s about to come in: ‘we have Heaven’s Gate, the short version.’
Robert is horribly jealous, and is convinced that Mary is having affairs. Of course, he also despises himself and is constantly beating himself up. Stanley Kubrick told Brooks that he was impressed by the movie and always wanted to make a film about jealousy—and 18 years later, he did: Eyes Wide Shut. Brooks is often compared to Woody Allen, but I would say that Brooks is a much better writer. He’s also far more cynical, and nothing ever ends well in his projects. The character he always plays constantly teeters on the edge of violence.
Modern Romance also includes one of the greatest ever scenes of physical comedy. Robert is given some Quaaludes to sleep off his breakup—he sleeps, but stuff happens… it definitely rivals the famous Quaalude scene from Wolf of Wall Street. Brooks has brilliant comedic timing, and the film is full of fantastic one-liners. Unlike most romantic comedies, it continuously pulls the rug out from under the audience. The last scene is a case in point. You think it’s going to have a happy ending, but with each bit of text that shows up on the screen, the story gets increasingly worse. This part is scored by the sappiest song remotely possible, “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker, which makes sure that the cynicism of the film and the text really hits home.
Brooks is one of the great comedic directors and writers, far darker and more cynical than Woody Allen ever was. He does work with his cinematographer in exactly the same way that Allen works with Gordon Willis: while Brooks rehearsed with the actors on the set, and once they were ready, they left and the cinematographer and crew did the lighting and set-up for the take. Brooks’s big theme is dismantling the American dream. The rom-com ideal is a perfect vehicle, and he continues the trend in his next film, Lost in America, which is road movie. In fact, you can see the germ of the excellent Lost in America taking root in Modern Romance.
Although he’s one of the great American filmmakers, Brooks’s films have been really hard to get in the UK—and that’s a real shame. Hopefully this re-release will bring new attention to his work. Unfortunately, many of his later films are owned by Warner Brothers, which doesn’t do many re-releases (in fact, his most recent film wasn’t even released in the UK).
The disk includes an interview with the cinematographer, Eric Saarinen, and a commentary by Nick Pinkerton, a trailer, stills gallery, and a booklet with new and old writing about the film.