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When Albert Brooks made his first film, Real Life (1979), you could sense a torpid Hollywood thinking it might rise up from its mat of comedic formula. Brooks's second film, Modern Romance (1981), clinched it. The sigh of collective relief that wafted from Hollywood to Manhattan's Carnegie Deli was palpable. Hollywood had its own West Coast Woody Allen. But the equating of Allen and Brooks, which still persists, conveniently overlooks some significant differences. In their glory days, Allen was funnier, Brooks was riskier. Much of Allen's humor came from his witty putdowns of himself and his screen persona's nebbishness. That he could achieve bittersweet poignancy as well became clear in Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). But there was always something placating in Allen's persona. He could be charming. He wanted us to laugh at him, yes, but he also wanted us to like him.
Not Brooks, who with an insane purity refused to take it easy on his audiences and especially on himself. Allen in his standup days was quicker with a punchline. Brooks worked without a net, once appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, delivering a five-minute monologue, not getting a single laugh, then at the end declaring he had been doing standup for five years and had run out of material. The audience, Carson included, was convulsed with laughter, partly due, no doubt, to the simple release of what had to have been the accumulating tension.
With Brooks, there's nothing placating, or even mitigating. He encompasses comedy's three Ns neurosis, narcissism and neediness. His. Like much of modern life, he's funny and horrible at the same time. In Modern Romance, his alter ego film editor, Robert Cole, makes us laugh at his blindness to his own self-destructive obsessiveness, getting it so gratingly right that you can't stand being in the same room with him for more than a few beats before wanting to flee, screaming. In his film, he plays a guy who, to paraphrase the immortal Jimmy Durante, has the feeling that he wants to go, but still has the feeling that he wants to stay. Which of course leaves him nowhere. Which of course is the point of the unsparing, yet ruefully funny hyper-noodge and his off-the-charts behavior.
He's a guy who can invite his superhumanly patient girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) to dinner, tell her he has to break up with her yet again ("It's a no-win situation Vietnam, us"), watch her storm off, then get angry because she didn't finish her meal. He's whiny and impossible, refusing to use his cuddly appearance to ingratiate himself, deliberately filming his scenes in small spaces to underline the narrowness of his self-circumscribed life, adding ever-impending claustrophobia to our reasons for wanting to be anywhere he isn't. Essentially, his character in Modern Romance spends a lot of time literally going around in circles in hyper-drive, turning the circles into a rut, Road-Runner-style, then turning the rut into a moat. His vehicle of choice is a sleek silver roadster he floors enroute through L.A. and its environs. Ordinarily you'd worry about him crashing, except that you know he can't, partly because the picture would end too soon, partly because it's out of keeping with his nonstop replenishing of his own Sisyphus myth.
His self-reflexiveness somehow seems more at home in L.A. than it might elsewhere in this film where the only real credibility struggle has to do with the Harrold character's willingness to keep going with him, and not slap a stiff restraining order on him; he even follows one break-up by stuffing his car with apology toys and flowers and leaving them on her doorstep. At one point she asks him if he knows the difference between real love and movie love. It's a fair question, although more to the point would have been whether he can love anyone, as in the famous New Yorker cartoon with the troubled Greek maiden standing on the bank of a stream and asking her handsome guy, "Tell me Narcissus, is it someone else?"
Brooks is not unaware of Hollywood mythmaking and its inner workings. His scenes at work at his editing job are funny, even envelope-pushing. He annoys the hell out of his stoic colleague (Bruno Kirby) by showing up bummed out over his latest breakup and then going back and forth endlessly about whether he should stay and work or go home because he can't concentrate. Here, too, cramped work spaces add to the walls-closing-in feeling. They do as well in the apartment to which he retreats, drunk and stuffed with Quaaludes. There he disses his answering machine, adores his record collection, and collapses, only to rise up, contact an old girlfriend, impulsively make a date with her, then, after picking her up, deposit her on her curb after driving around the block and deciding he really had better try to re-ignite the relationship with the woman he just declared himself glad he was free of.
It's that kind of movie. And yes, Brooks uses his character's job to slip in a few digs at movies. The movie he's working on is a Star Wars knockoff featuring George Kennedy in a silver lame robe, clutching a ray gun while prowling the corridors of a cheesy spacecraft. In a sound editing studio, there's a glancing remark about having to finish up and clear out because the next time slot has been assigned to the legendarily lengthy Heaven's Gate (1980). Filmmaker James L. Brooks gets a rare chance to show his stuff as an actor in a brief appearance as Brooks's and Kirby's vacillating boss. He later more than repaid the favor, giving Brooks perhaps his best screen role as the smart but nervous and camera-shy reporter in Broadcast News (1987). Albert Brooks, born Albert Lawrence Einstein, also cast his brother, Bob Einstein, in a brief, but very funny role as an aggressive sporting goods store salesman who loads the insecure narcissist down with armfuls of expensive junk.
But the number the clerk does on him is nothing compared to the number he does on himself and can't stop doing. Modern Romance is Brooks's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mess. A very specific mess, a Hollywood mess, a finicky, funny, obsessive compulsive who just can't leave anything alone, who talks his way back into his girlfriend's bed with a declaration of love, then undoes it all by nosing through her papers, going ballistic over some out-of-town calls on her phone bill, and possessively interrogating her, unable to see that he doesn't really want to possess what he's being possessive about. It's not Brooks's editor who gets a workout in his overpriced running togs. It's perversity itself, in this film Stanley Kubrick himself no stranger to the obsessive-compulsive famously praised. Perhaps Kubrick was looking in a mirror while doing so. Or working on a draft of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) while recalling one of Brooks's memorable observations about the biz: "Being a screenwriter in Hollywood is like being a eunuch at an orgy." Either way, Modern Romance clearly defines one side of the comedy of discomfort's Hollywood-Manhattan divide.
Producers: Andrew Scheinman, Martin Shafer
Director: Albert Brooks
Screenplay: Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson
Cinematography: Eric Saarinen
Film Editing: David Finfer
Cast: Albert Brooks (Robert Cole), Kathryn Harrold (Mary Harvard), Tyann Means (waitress), Bruno Kirby (Jay), Jane Hallaren (Ellen), Karen Chandler (neighbor), Dennis Kort (health food salesman), Bob Einstein (sporting goods salesman), Virginia Feingold (bank receptionist), Thelma Bernstein (Albert Brooks' mother), Candy Castillo (drugstore manager), James L. Brooks (David), George Kennedy (himself and Zeron), Rick Beckner (Zeon)
by Jay Carr