And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
—Michael Jackson, “She’s Out of My Life”
“cras amet qui numquam amavit
—The Magus (John Fowles)
Life comes at you fast. As someone recently on the receiving end of an unexpected breakup, I was a little cool on the idea of watching Albert Brooks’ 1981 film Modern Romance—whose premise was summarized, on the one-sheets at the time, in the following terms: “Robert was madly in love with Mary. Mary was madly in love with Robert. Under the circumstances they did the only thing they could do… they broke up.” But then, in that brutal darkness of heartache, a downbeat thesis bestows energy: re-watching Taylor Hackford’s sorely under-appreciated Proof of Life (2000) two weeks ago, I entertained the thought that romance, in its most forbidden, tainted, doomed and fanciful modes, might constitute the greatest enduring theme in art—and, perhaps, my favorite cinematic subgenre.
“I’d like to talk,” Bob (Brooks) tells Mary (Kathryn Harrold) in the first scene. That inescapably ominous line: the soft preface to a hard exit. Their relationship has run its course: the diner Bob has chosen for their breakup chat must emit passion on the couple’s behalf, boasting a mise en scène saturated in fifty shades of red—rose-red leather booths, blood-red tumblers, ketchup-red condiment bottles. Though Bob’s shirt is also warmly colored, we might read its checkered pattern as an outward expression of his inner need to assert himself, to ditch someone who no longer fits into life’s rigid, predefined blueprint. After, the deed done, the couple will part in the cold blue of a nocturnal parking lot—a non-place designed for temporary stops.
Seldom have I felt so eager to connect with a fiction on the blind presumption that it will resonate. In truth, however, Bob’s a bastard. As a film editor at American International Pictures—working on a cheap and cheerful sci-fi starring George Kennedy—he likes to talk things through, verbalize everything: to himself. Returning to work after breaking up with Mary, he monologues to his assistant, Jay (Bruno Kirby), a little too keen on vindicating his decision. Jay recommends Quaaludes. Ready to embrace his newfound freedom, Bob self-medicates, experiencing the ecstatic highs as well as the verbose, speak-out-loud lows of the subsequent drugs trip. The scene, a slow-build depiction of someone desperate to convince himself that he’s Done The Right Thing, is a one-man act of tragicomedy: when Bob wakes up in his car the following morning, having gotten into it with the intention of driving over to Mary’s place, he praises his own self-control rather than acknowledge that he fell asleep at the wheel, intoxicated.
In the film’s funniest and perhaps most perceptive moments, Bob comes to the realization that one person continues to dominate his thought patterns: giving himself a pep talk, outlining an immediate course of action to forget her, he does precisely the opposite. These scenes, in which he talks to himself alone, provide a kind of verbal slapstick, suggesting a reflexivity on the protagonist’s part that is absent when other characters enter the picture. Indeed, Brooks plays the guy you don’t want to be: the kind of smarmy, self-centered neurotic who is eternally unaware of just how much his social conditioning empowers him and his self-preservationism in relation to (and at the expense of) any long-suffering partner.
In this sense, Bob’s profession takes on metaphoric meanings. Brooks spends a significant amount of time inside the post-production suites at American International Pictures, and it becomes clear that his protagonist’s need to control, to impose the subtlest kind of authorship—even ownership—onto the film at hand also informs his approach to women. Out of sight but not quite out of mind, Mary may as well be the inanimate, interchangeable strips of film that Bob cuts up and re-edits with unthinking precision. Similarly, when Bob works with Foley artists to re-dub the sound of footprints in a particular scene of the Kennedy movie, his childlike investment in the job—as if it’s the only thing in the world that matters—suggests a shortsighted juvenility, which is later echoed when, reunited with Mary, he gets carried away by the moment: “This part is perfect isn’t it? Well, we can work at everything else.”
is a film about jealousy, and about the poisonous mechanisms by which it finds expression. Worrying about Mary when she disappears at a house party with two other guys, Bob mistakes his own misogyny for concern: that ingrained assumption that he is all men and all men are him, and that women don’t have much of a say in what they want or do—objects to be stolen, preyed upon, poached. Brooks doesn’t shy away from the fact his character is a shit, but the portrait of his grief, paranoia, and the nature of a romantic rebound is effectively painful nevertheless. The director himself is a suffocating onscreen presence, from the way his character looks at Mary to the way he naturally speaks: Brooks talks from the back of his mouth rather than from the tongue—a kind of negative energy source, a hole that sucks the dryness from a room. It’s very claustrophobic.
All of which is to say that we are, without knowing much about her, instinctively on Mary’s side. I would have preferred, however, for her to be painted with more agency, as an active component in the ongoing romance rather than the passive recipient of Bob’s emotional uncertainties. There is truth to this, surely, but I think Brooks takes liberties whenever he widens his pinpoint character study to something broader (in both the social and comical sense). Given my present need for optimism, it’s difficult to read the ending of his film as anything other than cruel. The textual inscriptions that conclude Modern Romance, and the droll pace with which their three-point punch-line is revealed, hints at a bathetic predictability regarding human relations. It’s a thesis I reject.
They marry, they divorce, they get back together: isn’t that the message of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), my go-to comfort-watch in Times Like These? But whereas in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece the sentiment is reassuring, in Modern Romance it feels cynical, a cheap gag. This isn’t necessarily the criticism it might sound like, but I think it has something to do with the fact that in the later film, the realization that couples might be destined to repeat the same mistakes is a reciprocal and even comforting understanding, while the conclusion of Brooks’ film seems to punish Mary. Bob smothers, persuades, conquers: ad infinitum.
I think, also, of Manhattan (1979). Woody Allen’s film, which predates Brooks’ by two years, concludes with a neurotic older man coming to terms with a woman’s self-trust. “You have to have a little faith in people,” she tells him, about to catch a flight to London, where she’ll be staying for the next six months. To which the response is a gradual smile: that beauty—the great romance—of giving someone space, and of letting things take their course. Life comes at you fast, but without this kind of epiphany or understanding—without the kind of honest, searching, reflective process that Mary in Modern Romance so desperately requires—it drifts away from you even faster.