Thursday, August 11, 2011

Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)

After I found Real Life so brilliant, layered and prescient that I scuttled my planned review entirely so I could revisit it first, I insisted on jotting down some thoughts for Albert Brooks' next film, Modern Romance. This proved to be something of a mistake, perhaps, as Brooks' second film has even more human brilliance within its cynical narrative than his previous work of genius. The title of Modern Romance, like that of Real Life, is at once to-the-point and subversively ironic, much like Brooks' brand of humor. It is also a slyly ambitious name, aspiring to serve as a summarizing overview of the status of something as important as the current state of love in society. With Brooks at the wheel, the film earns its title.

Brooks continues to cast himself as someone who works within the filmmaking industry, only this time he's not a hotshot director but an editor-for-hire named Robert Cole. This occupation proves critical, as he spends his days recontextualizing films by deleting obvious lines and adding in perspective-altering cutaways. In his romantic life, however, Bob is ruled by narrow preconceptions fueled by jealousy, and for someone who surely knows about the Kuleshov Effect, he rarely stops to consider that every shred of ostensible evidence he uses to accuse his girlfriend of something has less objective meaning than subjective belief.

We meet Bob in a diner with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), where he prepares to break up with her as she sighs with obvious familiarity of his mood swings. Brooks' rant is like a Robert Fripp guitar solo: dissonant, scattershot yet honed to laser precision. He can bounce from a long-winded digression about the film he's working on back to the matter at hand with such speed that even the tangents seem calculated to delve into the shared subject of each spiel: him. Brooks would make a great Dmitri Karamazov, constantly spinning off into his isolated, neurotic realms but always returning at a moment's notice to some self-absorbed, jealous screed. As an actor, Brooks is always desirous, desirous of affection, of attention, even of authority he does not seem to feel even as the director, writer and star of his pictures. Mary listens patiently to this self-absorption but has clearly had enough, and she accepts Bob's break-up request yet again, storming out in a justifiable huff. This could be the end of a cleverer-than-most rom-com, but Brooks uses it to kick off a riotous yet torturous look into the dynamics of relationships in the wake of the sexual revolution.

Brooks is brilliant at playing characters with clearly defined emotional goals — get the girl, make a name for himself, rescue his clownfish son — but hopelessly entangled paths to those destinations, paths he himself mucks up. For 90 minutes, he alternates between hopeless desire for Mary and rejection of her perceived flaws. For a good half of the film, she is not even present for these oscillations of devotion. One is tempted to label Bob bipolar, but even that term implies some sense of transition. Instead, Bob exists in a state of perpetual calm and chaotic despair, always happy for finally ending a relationship he contends never worked but fussing over wanting to reconcile and preventing himself from dating anyone else. Or, of course, letting anyone else see Mary.

Without getting on a soapbox of old-fashioned values, Brooks positions this tumultuous, microcosmic modern relationship as the result of founding a partnership on sex alone. Bob, pouring his heart out to his assistant editor, Jay, summarizes his time with Mary: "We fought and fought, then we had great sex. We never really could talk." Without missing a beat, Jay asks, "Do you need to talk?" It's a funny, typical response, but it shows how blind adults are to the difference between communication and sex. Having emerged from a more repressive system that placed sex on a pedestal, these people continue to view it as the ultimate prize, and hey, if you're getting laid, what more do you want?

Adrift in a time that isn't nearly as sexually liberated as his generation has been led to believe, Bob perpetuates old gender dynamics in a yuppie world. Men may no longer be able to get away with physical abuse, but Bob can still torment Mary with his uncontrollable jealousy, which he likes to believe is a show of his devotion. He calls her workplace and rants when the person at the other end says she's with a client or a colleague, and when his friends ask if they might be allowed to take Mary out themselves, his spittle could burn through metal as he hisses such hysterical, nonsensical insults like "Why don't you go live in an ash can?" And though Brooks maintains a look of general, if horrible, calm on his face, his aggression comes out in subtle ways, such as the casual way he nearly punches his radio buttons when love songs come on each station as he angrily changes channels without his facial expression ever changing. When he manages to worm his way back in with Mary, he immediately starts fighting again, engaging in passive-aggressive behavior when she leaves in dresses he finds too revealing. "There's people who only rape. That's all they do," Bob says in a sing-song voice that gets laughs but doesn't gloss over how insane he's acting.

This is a modern man, who tries to appear even more modern by covering his pain with yuppie hobbies like jogging and a sudden shift to health-freak eating (wherever he goes, he tells salesmen that he's just broken up, and one can see them physically trying to restrain their eyeballs from swiveling to reveal dollar signs where the irises should be). And yet, this modern yuppie has less insight into a stable, mutually beneficial relationship than his mother, who calls a disinterested Bob and retorts her son's comment about him having nothing in common with Mary by noting that couples have to work to find things in common instead of just expecting to find someone who share's all one's likes. Underlining what a regressive brute he really is, Bob stands outside a phone booth waiting to call yet again to see what Mary is doing, but he is forced to wait while a much older gentleman calls his own wife and accuses her of sleeping around to fit his own demented fantasies.

But even with his ability to juggle these dark impulses within the comedy, Brooks does lighten up from time to time and throws in a few raucously written and ingeniously directed sequences to let the audience vent some discomfort. When Bob takes out another woman on a date, the camera points through the windshield as they drive for a time, the gentle music on the radio setting a mood of ease and progression for the hung-up man. Then the camera cuts to show the car returning to the woman's apartment complex where Bob suddenly blurts out that he's "dating too soon" and drops the poor, flummoxed woman off at the curb. Brooks even digresses to spend some time in the editing suite, where he gets in some welcome relief in the form of a director (played James L. Brooks, who would return the favor when Broadcast News came around) who fusses over every extraneous, suspense-spoiling line that Bob and Jay cut and forces Bob to endure all his arty talk about what he wants what appears to be a cheap-ass Star Wars/Star Trek knock-off to mean. Later, the director invites Bob and Mary to a party, where it is obvious that everyone in the room, save Bob, is on coke. And he's still the most high-strung person there.

But the best part of the film, occurring near the beginning, is a night alone spent with a pet bird, a telephone that probably should have been disconnected and a couple of Quaaludes. Brooks turns the scene into a hysterical, yet poignant and realistic, portrait of a person trying to get through a bad night with substances. Brooks slurs and stumbles his way around his apartment, calling friends to profess love both Platonic and romantic, dancing to music he angrily throws off his turntable a few seconds later. A colleague calls and praises Mary, only for Bob to awkwardly mention the break-up, which leads to the aforementioned spew of hatred when the man then asks if he can make a move. "That is incestuous!" Bob yells with fading coherence.

A keen sense of irony hangs over Modern Romance, from the use of "You Are So Beautiful" over the title credits after the opening fight to the "Where are they now?" text crawl that completely undermines the deliberately false optimism and resolution of the film's ending. Yet the one area where Brooks is surprisingly sincere is in his openly acknowledged delineation between "movie love" and "real love." People say such things in the movies all the time, but that doesn't stop them from having the very same pat endings they critique. Technically, even this film has one of those conclusions. But Brooks sets out to make Modern Romance a genuine overview of the romantic relationship in social transition, a transition that, even today, does not yet look to have reached its unknown destination. Even when Brooks gives us our happy ending, he makes it seem hollow before the text informs us this roller coaster kept traveling its ups and downs. This is a complex situation, and it's no wonder "movie love" shies away from it. But as Modern Romance proves, real love can make for much more engaging, brilliant cinema than the easy way out.

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