Valentine’s Day is this week, so every day, one Dissolve writer will recommend a film that says something unusual or intriguing about love and relationships. Today, Scott Tobias talks about Modern Romance, Albert Brooks’ 1981 comedy about a man with a deep emotional investment in the woman he keeps dumping.
Tasha: Okay, Scott, what did you find especially interesting about Modern Romance’s thoughts on love?
Scott: Modern Romance came out one year after Raging Bull, and I can scarcely distinguish the two movies when it comes to matters of the heart. The major difference between the two, of course, is that Raging Bull is a drama and Modern Romance is a comedy: The domestic spats between Jake La Motta and his wife are startling in their brutality, but not unexpected, given the fiery temperament of a boxer driven mad by jealousy and paranoia. But Modern Romance finds those same feelings roiling in the gut of Albert Brooks’ Robert, who has absolutely nothing in common with his on-again/off-again girlfriend Mary, played by Kathryn Harrold, but cannot bear the thought of her being with another man. (Or the thought of being alone, period.) He’s a “normal” guy, and thus not given to La Motta’s violence, but he wields passive-aggression like a weapon, and that often brings Modern Romance into the realm of relatable dark comedy. The morning after one of their many reconciliations, Mary steps out in a sexy dress that Robert finds provocative and he calls after her, “Honey, there are men out there who only rape! That’s all they do.” It’s a funny line that’s also revealing of Robert’s possessiveness and sexual hang-ups. He’s not smacking Mary around for burning his steak, but he’s terrorizing her all the same.
Tasha: People who haven’t seen this movie may read that description and think “Wait, this is a comedy?” In bare description, it doesn’t sound like one, and even in execution, it’s extremely understated and dry, as Brooks’ comedies tend to be. The “stop being so attractive in public, you’re going to get raped” line counts as one of the most overt jokes; this comedy could easily be sold as a tragedy if the same script was performed only slightly differently. Is that ambiguity part of the appeal for you?
Scott: Absolutely. Modern Romance is a masterpiece of discomfort comedy, and many of the laughs are bound up in a strain of Everyman psychosis. Two related examples: Robert leaving a stuffed giraffe at Mary’s door in his latest attempt at reconciliation, and then returning to her house over and over to see whether she’s taken it in, which is related again to his primary worry that she’s seeing another man. (It’s a dark, fundamental irony of Modern Romance that he doesn’t really like Mary that much, and isn’t well-suited to her. He just doesn’t want some other guy to have her.) Then there’s the scene where Robert calls up some random female acquaintance and attempts to go on a date, only to drive her around the block and drop her back off at her apartment.
But Modern Romance isn’t all darkness. It also has several of the straight-up funniest scenes in Brooks’ career: There’s the great bit with his brother Bob Einstein (best known for his character Super Dave Osborne) as a shoe salesman who recognizes Robert’s pathetic desperation and upsells him into buying armloads of expensive exercise gear. (“You want happiness? Get away from the box.”) And there’s the sequence where Robert takes quaaludes, which now serves a funny precursor to the Lemmon ‘ludes in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Plus, the entire subplot about Robert’s job as a film editor working on a Z-grade science fiction movie starring George Kennedy. Scenes like Robert trying to do foley work on Kennedy running down a space station hallway—Hulk run!—are a nice relief from the intensity of Modern Romance, but they also subtly underline his controlling nature.
Tasha: The film spends a big chunk of its run time alone with Robert, watching him moping around his house by himself, skipping work, navigating his solo drug trip, getting dressed and undressed—there’s a surprising amount of hairy, half-naked young Albert Brooks in this movie—and particularly talking to himself. And even when he isn’t alone, the film always follows him, never Mary. It’s specifically about how this one man relates to his neuroses, jealousy, and indecision, and how he relates to his love object through these prisms. With all that in mind, did you find him a sympathetic character? Did you hope to see anything specific happen with him, or their relationship?
Scott: Sympathetic? I’m not sure. I don’t really think about characters in those terms. I just want a character to be compelling. One of the things I love about Modern Romance—and about Brooks in Real Life, Lost In America, Mother, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, too—is Brooks’ complete lack of vanity in playing men who are often quite vain. He’s not afraid to offer audiences his worst image of himself: Cruel, narcissistic, passive aggressive, and intensely insecure and neurotic. I think you’re right to think of Mary as a “love object” in Modern Romance, because his obsession with her is almost entirely self-generated; it may be a mystery to us why Mary keeps coming back to him, but it’s important that the film box the audience into his psychosis. Stanley Kubrick considered Modern Romance one of his favorite films, and you can see the connection between this film and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which is also about the lonely odyssey of a man fueled by sexual jealousy and obsessiveness. Brooks just makes it funny.
Tasha: I’m a little hung up on the title. “Modern Romance” seems like a statement of purpose, like Modern Times—it practically announces “This is a film about the way we handle relationships right now.” Do you think there’s any truth to that? Is Modern Romance just a comedy about this one couple, or is there a larger observation about something specific to its era?
Scott: To me, the title carries the bluntness of Brooks’ Real Life, which is about the making of a documentary that aspires to be sociological breakthrough along the lines of An American Family, the famous PBS series on the Loud family, but could not be a greater distortion of reality. Modern Romance has a similar agenda: It promises a “romance,” yet begins with a breakup (“You ever heard of a no-win situation? Vietnam… this…”) and continues with tortured reconciliations that bring Robert and Mary no happiness whatsoever. I can see how you might be hung up on the word “modern,” though, because I’m not sure what distinguishes this on-again/off-again relationship from one that might have happened at any other point in time. That said, I think Brooks is revealing patterns of behavior that are not limited to Robert and Mary. Theirs is a case study in that soul-sickening thing called love.
Tasha: So what did you learn from that case study? Modern Romance is most fascinating to me because there’s no real sense of consequences for actions in this relationship. Robert dumps Mary, stalks her, humiliates her in front of her boss, bullies her with paranoid accusations, rifles through her bills looking for weapons against her, and above all, blames all this on her. (One of my favorite laugh lines in the film comes from a moment where she’s trying to leave him, and he snatches her suitcase to prevent her from going. Three minutes later, he’s laughing about how ridiculous it is that he’s holding her bag—and spinning that as evidence that everything in their world is ridiculous, especially her whole silly “leaving” idea. And yet she’s always there, ready to accept him back whenever he’s in a “We belong together!” mood. I can’t decide whether this is a fantasy on Brooks’ part, a sad commentary on abusive relationships, or the kind of contrivance you have to accept to make the humor happen. Leaving aside any agenda or intention Brooks may have had—you aren’t a fan of that kind of interpretation anyway—what’s your takeaway from this movie in terms of how people in love treat each other?
Scott: We’re only privileged to see this relationship from Robert’s perspective, so the film is primarily about his unhealthy motives and actions in keeping this relationship going. Mary we can’t know as well, but what we see from both of them is a sick sort of compatibility, a pattern of behavior that’s set them in a perpetual loop. There are so many great observations about bad relationships in Modern Romance, but Brooks saves one of the best ones for last: When two people are having problems that threaten to end their relationship, their solution is often to reinforce the bond rather than dissolve it. Hey, let’s move in together! Let’s get married! Let’s have a baby! Robert and Mary may have nothing else in common, but the one thing they do is the fear of being alone. And that kind of insecurity that can serve as a bedrock to romance, modern or otherwise.