ROBERT: I haven’t been feeling good lately. I think it’s probably us. This is more serious than you think. I don't think we should go out anymore. I mean I just think it's over.
MARY: OK. So we're over again.
ROBERT: No, not again. This is the last time.
MARY: And you don't love me.
ROBERT: I do love you. Love has nothing to do with this. Yes, I do love you. That what makes this very confusing, but I just don't think...You've heard of a no-win situation, haven't you?"
(Mary indicates that she hasn't. Robert expresses disbelief that she's unfamiliar with the term.)
ROBERT: Vietnam? This? They’re around. I think we’re in one of them.
So begins the bulk of the opening of Albert Brooks' second feature as a director, Modern Romance, which premiered 30 years ago today.
By Edward Copeland
Before that conversation takes place, film editor Robert Cole (Brooks) sits alone in the all-purpose restaurant awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). When Mary arrives, he tells her he wants to order and eat quickly, because they have to talk seriously before he rushes back to work. They order, but his impatience gets to him and Robert starts to tell her their relationship hasn't been good for awhile but Mary, who has been through this innumerable times with Robert, isn't ready, and wants to wait until after they eat, quickly changing the subject to how his work on a sci-fi movie is going. Robert indulges her briefly, telling her that the film's director told him he's the best editor that he's ever worked with, but then Robert stops, insisting that the relationship talk take precedence. After the conversation listed above, Robert suggests that it's a good time for them to be free and clear, but when Mary agrees, he suddenly changes his tune and assumes he's psychic and that she's already seeing someone else, demanding to know who it is. Mary just gives up, spitting back that he thought it was a good time but Robert denies he meant what he said. Mary walks out, telling him to drop dead as an instrumental version of "You Are So Beautiful" plays over the opening credits.
Modern Romance marked the second time Brooks stepped behind the camera as a director, in front of it as the lead actor and provided the words as co-writer with his frequent collaborator, the late Monica Johnson. Coming two years after his mockumentary Real Life, Brooks' character of the insanely neurotic Robert Cole and his obsessively off-again/on-again relationship with Kathryn Harrold's Mary Harvard gave him the reputation at the time as the West Coast Woody Allen. It's funny that Harrold would play the part of his compulsive affection since more than a decade later, she'd assume a similar function as Francine, the ex-wife of another world-class neurotic during the second season of The Larry Sanders Show, only Francine at least had her feet planted more firmly on the ground than Mary Harvard does. Francine actually divorced Larry and resumed their relationship tentatively and decided rather quickly that going their separate ways was the better idea.
While comedies about romance among neurotics hardly qualifies as uncharted film territory, when placed in the hands of writers as talented as Brooks and Johnson, fresh angles and plentiful, if painfully realistic laughs, always can be found. One aspect of Modern Romance that does stake out territory you don't usually see in a film is the process of filmmaking itself, specifically the work of a film editor, which is what Robert does for a living. Following the split at the restaurant, Robert returns to the editing room with both meals to work with his assistant editor Jay (Bruno Kirby). He gives both dinners to Jay, but you can tell he doesn't listen closely to Mary because when Jay asks what kind of dressing is on the salad he says it's the house dressing when we clearly heard her order herb. Jay tells Robert that David, the director of the film they're editing, had been watching at home and phoned in ideas for changes. Robert tells Jay they should never have started sending video tapes home with directors. Besides, the breakup, even though Robert instigated it, has left him in no mood to work. Jay volunteers to stay and make the changes but Robert decides that work might be the best thing to take his mind off Mary and he settles down to work. Jay asks him if he and Mary fought a lot. Robert says that all they would do was fight and then they'd make up and have really great sex. "Do you need to talk?" Jay asks. Robert changes his mind again and decides he's not in a film editing state-of-mind. Jay advises Robert to go home and try to relax, giving him two Quaaludes to help. "There are 10 million people in this city alone," Robert says, "it can't be that hard to find one perfect person." Jay reminds him that he's alone as well, but the self-absorbed Robert seems disinterested as he leaves for home.
Once he's home, the weak Robert immediately checks his answering machine, but sees he forgot to turn it on. He then calls Mary, but no one answers. He interprets both of these things as signs that he's done the right thing. "Alone's kind of a nice place to be," he says to himself. Those Quaaludes have begun to kick in. The phone rings and he grabs it anxiously only to be disappointed to hear his mother on the other end and he hurriedly tries to get rid of her, lying that he's working at home and brushing past her inquiry about Mary. He stumbles into the bedroom and switches his clothing to a robe and after a brief tumble to the floor, he calls Jay, telling him he wants to let him know that he's the best assistant editor he's ever worked with in his career. The less-than-lucid Robert continues, "Jay, listen — I didn't tell you this before, and I think I should tell you now. I love you. I mean, in the right way. I think you're an amazing guy, and I — I think I just love you." Jay — quite correctly — guesses on the other end of the conversation that the 'ludes have kicked in. Robert is up and wandering and Jay tells him he needs to get back to work because he thinks he's got it whipped. Robert asks if he could get him more Quaaludes and Jay asks how many. "I don't know. About 100?" Jay says goodnight and Brooks continue his hilarious solo scene as the loopy Robert. Out of his mind and sitting before a phone and a phone directory, Robert decides the best way to forget Mary is to leap back into the dating fray. He calls up a woman named Ellen and asks if she remembers him. He tells her that he's always sort of loved her and wondered if she'd like to go out the next night, promising the best date of her life, full of surprises "like The Price Is Right." Ellen agrees to the date and Robert hangs up, telling himself that he'd be even more excited if he could remember what Ellen looked like and exactly who she was. The phone rings again, only this time it's from an assistant editor named Harry that Robert worked with once, asking for a job recommendation. Robert has no problem — until Harry says he always wanted to tell him how lucky he was to have Mary because he thinks she's a spectacular woman. Robert tells him that they are no longer together. Harry apologizes, saying he didn't know that and then makes the mistake of asking if it would be rude if he asked Mary out. The Quaaludes didn't relax Robert enough to keep him from going ballistic. He calls Harry a scumbag and Mr. Trashcan, even asks why he doesn't try to cozy up to his parents so he can take Robert's place in the will. A stunned Harry gets off the line and a furious Robert decides he better go out before something terrible happens so he climbs in his car and turns on the radio. The first song emanating from the radio is "Another One Bites the Dust." The next thing Robert knows, the sun is shining: He passed out in his car without ever going anywhere. However, Robert congratulates himself: He made it through the first night without Mary.
After he freshens up, ready to start a new day, Robert decides that he better not push things by working, so he calls Jay and asks if he can get by without him. Jay has no objections, so Robert prepares for his new life. Unfortunately, he discovers that all his vitamin bottles are empty. He heads out to replenish his supplements and go on a new life shopping spree, telling the clerks at every store that he's coming off a breakup. This leads the health food clerk (Dennis Kort) to recommend certain vitamins and supplements. He repeats the routine at a sporting goods store in one of the film's funniest scenes where the salesman is played by Bob Einstein, Brooks' real-life brother who is best known as Super Dave Osborne and these days as Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Robert gravitates toward a display that contains all you would need to begin a running regimen, but the salesman steers him away, insisting that those shoes "are made of old tires. Is that how you want to start your new life?" He brings out more expensive Nike shoes. Then he adds an expensive jogging suit, saying the cheaper one will leave a rash, and says he'll need two. Robert questions the need for two. "What if one is in the wash?" Robert smiles. "I won't run?" The salesman starts to hang the suits back up. "I'm sorry. I misjudged you." Robert caves and the equipment piles up to include salt tablets, headbands, wristbands and a wrist wallet, though Robert doesn't understand why he can't just keep his wallet in the pocket of his jogging suit, but the salesperson just glares. It's hysterically funny.
Fully equipped, Robert heads out immediately to begin his training, i.e. his new life without Mary. As we've observed, Robert Cole doesn't seem to stick by resolutions because his obsessive nature gets in the way and currently its laser-like focus stays on Mary, restraining him from new ventures. He goes to a field and keeps preparing for his sprint. He crouches in a starting position, but it's hard to remove things from his mind, as he counts off, "One, two, three. And I don't even miss her, two, three. One, two, three. And I don't even miss her, two, three." Finally, he starts jogging, then checks his new wrist wallet. The run continues until he veers off the track and to a nearby phone booth where he takes change from that wrist wallet and makes a call to Mary's bank and asks for her. The voice on the other end says she's not sure if she and Jim are back from lunch yet, but she'll check. The woman returns and says she's not back. Robert hangs up and, as you would expect, immediately starts obsessing about this Jim person, though he decides this is yet another sure sign that he did the right thing. He called last night and she didn't answer, now she's not at the bank and is out with another man. Yes, he was right to sever things for good. Albert Brooks over the years has proved he's always a master of phone call scenes, but in Modern Romance, phones pop up so often, they practically end up being a recurring theme. I can't help but wonder how this film would play today in the age of cell phones, if Robert weren't constantly stopping at phone booths.
By the time Robert has returned home, the feeling that everything that has happened is for the best has evaporated again. He decides that he can't go out with Ellen that night, especially since he's still not certain what she looks like it or how exactly he knows her. He dials her up to call off the date, but gets her answering machine. Instead of putting the kibosh on the evening's activities, Robert says he's just calling to confirm that night's date and tells the device how much he is looking forward to it. When he's done with the call, he starts thinking about his place. He realizes that he doesn't have any dope or clean sheets. "I'm not prepared to get laid tonight." He ventures out anyway and pulls his car up to a house and gently knocks on the door. You think he's there to pick up Ellen, but he's actually stopped first at Mary's. She is not pleased to see him on her doorstep. She tells him that she doesn't want to go through this again, but he's obsessed with her clothing. He thinks she's particularly well-dressed so she must have be getting ready for a date. In no mood for this, Mary tells Robert to go home and closes the door. As Robert walks backward toward his car, he shouts, " I don't know where you get this strength. I'm sure it's in stores. I'll find it." Once he's in his car, Robert wonders how Mary could have scored a date so fast. He at least was under the influence of pills, but he doubts Mary was.
Robert leaves directly from Mary's to pick up Ellen (and learn who exactly she is). He pulls her car up in front of her apartment building and parks (Note the black cat that's in front of his car). He rings the buzzer and announces his presence. Her voice asks if he wants to come up, but he declines and tells her to just come on down and then he meets Ellen (Jane Hallaren) and remembers that they had worked together on something involving Peter Bogdanovich. Then, because at this point it would seem that it's the only way Robert knows how to begin a conversation, he tells her that he's just had a breakup but not to worry, they are going to have a great time. He asks her if she has any suggestions for a restaurant, but she doesn't and he picks what he says is a great place and they start driving. Silence descends on the car as the radio begins playing Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life." Brooks' expression says it all as the song plays; you can just read what's spinning in his head and the entire scene has a simple sort of brilliance as it's just these two actors, silent in a car as the song plays. Then you realize, Robert has made a complete circle and is back in front of Ellen's apartment building and tells her that he can't go out yet. He thought he could, but he's just not ready. He promises that he will call her again in a few weeks or months, when he's more emotionally ready to move on and then reaches across to open the passenger door for her and lets her out leaving her standing in front of her apartment building, looking dumbfounded.
Instead of going home, Robert heads to a strip shopping mall which, apparently in L.A., sometimes come with parking gates with attendants which (you can probably repeat along with me by this point) he tells, "I just had a breakup..." adding that he just needs to buy some gifts. So he goes to what seems more like a drug store annoying the employees about their selection and picking up toys such as a stuffed giraffe and looking for items that talk, but failing to find any that actually say, "Mary." He gathers them all together and heads back to Mary's, but she's not home, so he leaves them on her porch, along with a note, and begins his insanely long night waiting for a response. First, he heads home to his answering machine, but there's nothing. The phone rings, but it's his mother again and he struggles to get rid of her, telling her he's waiting for an important phone call. Paranoid that she could have called while his mom tied up the line, he heads out again and drives by her house, but the toys are still on the porch. He drives around a bit and decides to call from a phone booth and, in a scene that could be from the future, he has to wait for an old man to finish his call and the man could be Robert several decades down the road. The senior citizen is grilling the woman on the other end of the line about another man, even accusing her of having him there with her at the time before saying someone is waiting to use the phone. Robert's travels go on for quite some time: driving by Mary's, back home to check his machine, back to check her porch and then finally back home to the message he's been waiting for: "I love the giraffe."
"I don't know what makes me do these things. It's my lizard brain," Robert tells Mary as he shows up at her house and immediately takes her to bed. Though I love Modern Romance, I view it as Brooks finding his film footing for the better films he would go on to make such as Lost in America (his best, I think), Defending Your Life and Mother. The central weakness for me is that as Mary willingly and quickly reconciles with Robert that night, her character gets no development to explain what's wrong with her that keeps her going back to this neurotic extraordinaire. When you get down to it, even once they get back together, his essential quirks don't change that much, yet Mary stays with him. He never physically harms her, but honestly, he's a stalker during periods of their separation and paranoid and jealous when they're together. If he hurt her physically, he could end up being Jake La Motta. The morning after their reunion lovemaking, Robert immediately frets about the outfit Mary is wearing to work, saying the dress makes her nipples look like eyeballs, yet nothing in the film really gives any indication that Mary is as neurotic as Robert or even slightly crazy to explain why she puts up with his crap. As they continue dating for the rest of the film, he always tries to blame his craziness on love. When toward the end, it looks as if he's finally gone too far for her, he proposes — and she says yes. Nothing explains what's wrong with her to want to hitch her wagon to Robert when it's obvious she can do better. Really, Modern Romance is a dark comedy, but not the type you usually associate with the term. Its humor comes dipped so much in pain that you're not always certain that laughter is the proper response.
This shouldn't imply that Modern Romance relies solely on angst-ridden humor alone. Albert Brooks knows how to make people laugh and the other films he co-wrote with Monica Johnson (Real Life, Lost in America, Mother and The Muse) weren't in the same dark vein and Johnson also wrote episodes of classic TV sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and It's Garry Shandling's Show. In other words, these two could bring the funny. In fact, Brooks' big breaks were his hysterical shorts that aired on the original cast incarnation of Saturday Night Live.
In Modern Romance, the scenes played almost exclusively for laughs involve Robert's work as a film editor on the sci-fi film. Additionally, it provides extra depth in, as I mention, you seldom see this aspect of filmmaking shown in such detail in a movie, let alone a romantic comedy. It also helps in giving Robert extra layering. He's still the same neurotic man, but he does his work seriously and professionally and I believe it helps the audience keep from being completely put off by his behavior. When he returns to the editing room to work with Jay, it's as if he'd not lost more than a day over his breakup. He immediately comes up with a suggestion on how to build suspense in a scene where the star of the movie, who happens to be George Kennedy, as Zeron is grilling his men over some nonsense about having to obtain a code. In the original cut, one of the men, Zeon (Rick Bleckner) steps forward and says he knows it, but Kennedy's character yells back at him that he doesn't know anything. Robert correctly points out that it will be another hour in the film before Kennedy will learn Zeon knows. Why not build suspense by cutting Zeon's line and just show him giving a little reaction and not have Kennedy respond at all? Jay agrees that it does play better and even though you can tell that the movie they are working on looks pretty silly, the actual process of cutting that way did improve it.
When the film's director David (James L. Brooks, the film director, but no relation to Albert Brooks) drops into the booth and Robert proudly shows him his work, he's not as impressed. It could be that David had dropped by with his own obsession and wasn't particularly interested in listening to anything else or that he really didn't appreciate the change. David had dropped by because he had become obsessed with a scene where George Kennedy is running through the hallways of the spaceship and it was filmed in carpeted halls and it doesn't really sound like desperate running and he wants to dub it to make it sound like something metallic or thumping on the floor — he even goes into repeated detail to imitate the thumping — to accompany Kennedy's breathing. Robert and Jay agree they will do what they can. As David is leaving, he asks Robert to walk with him, peppering him with questions about whether he thinks the movie is any good. Robert asks him what got him upset and he says he saw Alien and they referred the bowels of the ship and they used the same phrase and he's afraid audiences will think they are copying and wonders if they should change it to the basement of the ship. Robert says he shouldn't worry. "All ships have bowels." David then invites Robert to a party at his house that night and to bring a date. Robert's revised line now is that he just got back together with his girlfriend and he doesn't know but David blows that off and tells him to come anyway because George Kennedy will be there and he wants him to see his feet. In Los Angeles, everyone is neurotic in their own peculiar way. They do go, though Robert tries to keep his eye on Mary who runs into some old friends who she goes off into a room to do some coke while Kennedy regales him with a tale of showing up at the wrong studio on the first day of shooting. David suggests it will make a great talk show story. "Why? To tell the world I'm an idiot?" Kennedy replies. Once Robert finally finds Mary again, her friends offer him so coke, but he declines, saying, "I'm hyper naturally." When they get home, he regrets going, since they are in a "mending phase." "When aren't we in a mending phase?" Mary asks.
Welcome to the sound mixing room, another of the funniest and behind-the-scenes sequences of Modern Romance as Robert and Jay return to work the next day to find the right sounds to match George Kennedy running down an imaginary spaceship's hallway. Who really deserves credit for the hilarious success of this section of the movie is the actor Albert Henderson, the gray-haired man in the back row playing the role of the head mixer. His sardonic delivery of every line truly is a treasure. I had to look him up on IMDb afterward and the actor died in 2004 at 88, though his credits didn't begin until 1957. Most was episodic television but even in his film roles, he almost always played a cop. Anyway, back to Modern Romance.
Robert asks the sound guys what they think the surface Kennedy is running on looks like and, naturally, they all reply carpet, since that is what it is. Robert says that David is looking for a sound that's like thumping when he runs on some kind of surface such as a metallic or concrete sound. He asks if they might have some kind of effect like that. The head mixer says they have tapes of The Incredible Hulk running, but he run kinds of slow, but Robert's willing to give it a try. Once they set it up, if The Hulk's moving fast, you can't hear it over his grunting screams, so Robert immediately nixes that, asking why they call that The Hulk Running effect. "Mark that Hulk Screaming," he suggests.
Robert and the men decide they'll have to fake the effect themselves. They ask the sound men what they have available and, given the options, they go with a small metallic surface, which one of the mixers brings out and sets microphones around upon which Robert will be faking the sound of George Kennedy's running. Then Robert remembers that since Kennedy is carrying something in the scene, he needs to mimic that as well, so they begin speculating how much that prop would weigh. "I don't know. Maybe it doesn't weigh anything — did you ever think of that?" the head mixer says. "Maybe it's on one of those planets that doesn't have any gravity." Robert dismisses the sarcasm and spots an empty bottle from a water cooler and starts practicing holding that. Jay agrees that that looks right so Robert starts running in circles to get his breathing heavy and has Jay chase him before he gets on the surface and runs in place in sync to the footage of George Kennedy in that goofy silvery costume jogging down the cheap-looking spaceship set carrying the plastic-looking plot and they record Robert. They then sit and wait for the playback. The result thrills Robert and Jay and Robert turns to ask the head mixer what he thinks and with that same great dry deliver, Henderson says, "I think you saved the picture." As all the men clear the room, there's a final voiceover punchline announcing, "We've got Heaven's Gate the short version here at 8." Of course, I laughed, but like the movie, that joke is 30 years old and I wonder if future viewers, even future film buffs, will be able to have knowledge complete enough to get the gag or will you have to have been alive in that era to truly appreciate that reference?
Having not seen Modern Romance in a long time before watching it again for this piece, I have to admit that it does pale next to Brooks' later works, but it still provides plenty of laughs if you can find humor that comes from such a painful place. The mystery to me always has been why Brooks has had such a small output as a writer-director. For someone initially painted as a "West Coast Woody Allen," he's not remotely as prolific, but on the plus side, he doesn't repeat himself as a filmmaker the way Woody does. All of Brooks' films are easily distiguished from the others, even if his central persona might be similar. Brooks seems content to stick to acting more than writing and directing. He cast writer-director James L. Brooks in an acting part here and six years later James returned the favor by giving Albert his best acting role, his Oscar-nominated turn in James' best film, Broadcast News. Then again, Albert Brooks was acting in great films before he ever made one of his own, playing Cybill Shepherd's campaign co-worker in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and now young generations might not know his name, but they'll recognize his voice as the anxious father searching for his missing son in Pixar's Finding Nemo. Thirty years later, Modern Romance might not represent the best of Albert Brooks' work as a writer-director but it's definitely fascinating to view it as a stepping stone in his overall artistic development.