Albert Brooks is one of the great American filmmakers who’s just now getting his critical due. As a director, he’s considerably less than prolific, churning out a mere seven features over forty years. But each of his films carries its author’s thumbprint – a reflexive sense of self-loathing that haunted the auteur from Real Life (’79) all the way up to Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (’05). Brooks is often putting himself under his own microscope, simultaneously celebrating the world in which he lives and his viewpoint while violently tearing his ego to shreds. His filmography is a wonder of self-awareness, to the point of being wholly uncomfortable for the viewer to sit through.
With that milieu in mind, Modern Romance – the director’s ’81 dissection of the romantic comedy – is his unqualified masterpiece. Playing Robert, a film editor who breaks it off with his longtime, too patient girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), Brooks commits possibly the greatest act of cringe humor in cinema history. Where most romantic comedies are about pursuing that which would lead to happiness ever after (usually within a pre-packaged, convoluted narrative construct), Modern Romance is about Brooks’ never-ending quest to be the most miserable human being imaginable. His Robert Cole is the apex of toxic masculinity – bulldozing all that is good in life thanks to never being satisfied with the privileges and opportunities it's bestowed to him.
Modern Romance isn’t so much a story as it is a continuous stretching of scenes until they reach unbearable levels of comedic tension. It’s no wonder Stanley Kubrick has credited Brooks’ film as being a major influence (namely on his own final masterwork, ‘99’s Eyes Wide Shut), as the writer/director inserts Cole into scenarios and conversations, ostensibly only to see how badly he’ll fuck each and every one up via his innumerable neuroses. Even when Robert is alone, he’s incredibly awkward. A near ten-minute moment where he takes Quaaludes and externalizes his own inner monologue is both incredibly funny and wildly intrusive. We’re invited to become flies on the walls of the editor’s apartment, buzzing as a man’s attempt to calm himself and silence the voices that plague his brain results in one of the worst drug experiences in consumption’s long legacy.
Robert’s actions make you want to scream at the screen, as he’s an unhappy monster, fueled by the push-pull dynamics of an on-again-off-again courtship. We open with him breaking up with Mary, who is disappointed but accepts her now former mate’s decision like an adult and walks away. However, Robert’s re-entry into single life reveals a man who simply cannot be alone. He engages in a number of “new hobbies” to try and take his mind off the woman he chose to leave. Now we see Robert’s abrasive tics extend into every aspect of his life, as a salesperson is able to dupe him into buying a ton of jogging gear he no doubt doesn’t need, but will buy because he has no sense of identity when left to his own devices. This insecurity leads to him re-pursuing Mary – driving by her home and overcome with jealousy in a fashion that would make most stalkers think he’s overdoing it.
Beyond assessing his faults as a man, Brooks uses Modern Romance to give us an insider look into the blood, sweat and tears below-the-line artists pour into pieces of cinema like the one we’re presently enjoying. There are two engrossing scenes where characters explain invisible film craft set inside both an editing bay and a Foley studio. Robert’s best friend is Jay (a subtly stellar Bruno Kirby), with whom he toils every day to try and get the picture they’re working on to flow better than its own director can. In blocking and filming each of his comedic set pieces, Brooks pays careful attention to how the camera will follow and frame each character, as his regular cinematographer, Eric Saarinen (The Hills Have Eyes), manufactures genuine texture via his usage of browns and reds. Before Brooks even picked up a camera, he’d spent years as an actor working with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and helming segments for Saturday Night Live. This attention to construction is apparent, and helps bring Modern Romance to life with revolutionary aplomb.
Above all else, Albert Brooks is showcasing his skills as a performer – his persona occupying an odd space between unlikable, afro’d dweeb and endearingly doting Jewish boyfriend. The narcissism that obviously fueled this casting choice is tempered by everything listed above, on top of the comedian’s willingness to bare his overly hair chest, or get all dolled up in a track suit for a run that fizzles out before it even begins. Brooks is a rambling, twitchy ball of nerves, never once less than captivating even when he’s at his most irritating. That’s a one of a kind talent, and displays a lack of vanity which invites goodwill due to the actor’s shrewd nakedness. Certainly helping matters is the fact that a woman’s touch can be felt in the script, as Brooks’ frequent co-writer, Monica Johnson, beefed up Robert’s more off-putting traits, as well as how Mary perceives them. All of these qualities amalgamate into a humorous horror show with a final coda that clues us in to the fact that Brooks is talking about something much bigger than romance or the movies that financially exploit it. For Robert Cole, life itself is a series of calamities that’re meant to be endured until the day he dies, as we, the Gods, laugh at him for thinking he can retain any sense of pride or security throughout the process of living.