Modern Romance (1981)
Directed by Albert Brooks
February 14-17 at Anthology Film Archives, part of its Valentine’s Day Massacre series
Like Real Life before it, this is as funny as it is because it’s directed by an artist that’s visibly just as manic and fastidious as his on-screen persona. The film’s fussy pacing and precise camera placement present Brooks as a helmer that, like his obsessive lover/film editor Robert Cole, needs everything to be just-so. The obvious, key difference between Brooks as author and personality is that the former is desperate to eschew cliche expressions while the former seeks them out.
Robert’s obsessive-ness stems from the fact that he can’t back to “normal” after breaking up with Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). First he tries to forget her, taking quaaludes and buying expensive jogging accessories, but fails. He’s too much like the paranoid old man he sees accusing his wife in a phone booth of cheating on him. So, after barraging Mary with phone calls, Robert shows her his love and need for control by approximating gestures he’s seen in movies (she even calls him on this before they have make-up sex, though he offhandedly dismisses her). But between the stuffed animals and the log-cabin fireside wedding proposals, Robert proves that he’s terrified of Mary as an independent woman, as when she does coke with two men she knows from her job at the bank or complains about how her nipples can clearly be seen through her blouse.
Every time you watch or rewatch Modern Romance, you’re seeing two different masterful control freaks at work. This makes peripheral, precise details that much funnier, like when Meadowlark Lemon asks after Mary, or when Cole passes out in his car while “Another One Bites the Dust” plays on the stereo. Even the visible bobbling of the camera during the introductory tracking shot in the sports-store scene is endearing. It proves you just how in control Brooks is of his inimitable not-quite-romantic comedy.