Modern Romance, in and of itself, probably isn't considered a must-watch masterpiece. Though I know of certain critics who think it ranks with the best of all time, it hardly comes up outside the context of great comedies in modern American cinema; but I have a reason for choosing it as my first entry in this series: the man behind the camera is Albert Brooks, a respected and influential figure in American comedy and I shamefully admit to having not seen a single film directed by him. No, not Real Life, not Lost in America, none of them. And I had to start somewhere.
-You've heard of a no win situation, haven't you?
-Really? You've never heard of one? Vietnam? This?
Modern Romance is about Robert (Brooks), a film editor whose obsessive, controlling, inherently jealous personality has wreaked havoc on his relationship with his girlfriend and is, in turn, messing with his professional life. Though the relationship is clearly not in its early stages, Robert is uncertain whether Mary is the partner he wants to spend the rest of his life with but he's unwilling, or rather, unable to live without her for even a single day. His girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), is an executive at a bank whose seemingly successful professional life is undermined by her attachment to her neurotic partner. Though her dependence doesn't quite reach the extremity of Robert's to her, she's quick to fall for a small gift or gesture and willing to get back together at every turn.
Modern Romance opens in a restaurant, where Robert has invited his girlfriend to have the talk with her. Fed up with his constant mood swings, Mary storms out, warning him to never call her again. After this incident, Robert pledges to start his life anew. He plans new dates with new women, buys new clothes, takes up running, focuses on work... for less than 24 hours. Few films have captured the confusion and despair that comes immediately after a separation with such poignancy and urgency.
Though that's hardly the only arena in which Brooks ends up a champion. His take on the perils of being in a relationship maintained on jealousy is both inquisitive and incisive. He works the theme into the narrative through chance - Robert finds a phone bill in Mary's toilet closet and is unnerved by the discovery of a long distance number he doesn't recognize - thus highlighting the omnipresence of this type of overbearing suspicion in every moment of the relationship. Robert doesn't need concrete evidence to get jealous, a phone bill or a work-related dinner can tear their relationship apart.
Two scenes in particular showcase the strength of Brooks's understanding of post-breakup trauma. During the first, an upbeat Robert is leaving a sports store after buying new workout clothes the morning after his breakup. As he drives on his way to get changed and go for a run, he switches on the car radio where Nazareth's Love Hurts is playing. He changes the station only to to find The Beach Boys' God Only Knows. Just when you think it can't possibly get worse, he switches again to find The Association's Along Comes Mary playing on the third station. It's an incredibly short sequence that lasts barely 20 seconds and it had me laughing out loud, but when I settled down, I was left thinking about how cleverly and concisely Brooks highlights the simple truth that you can't escape from a relationship that quickly. You can try your damn best and take care of yourself in whatever ways you can think of but the entire universe is also trying its best to confine you and remind you of what you've lost all the time.
The second scene isn't quite as short. Robert, in a state of drunkenness, has flipped through his phone book on the night of the breakup to find an Ellen, call her, set a date for the following night and promise her "the best time she's ever had in her entire life." During the scene in question, Robert arrives at Ellen's address after circling in Mary's neighborhood several times hoping to find her. When Ellen exits her apartment, Robert starts the conversation as such:
"Ellen? You worked for Peter Bogdanovich? We met at the Nickelodeon wrap party! I gotta level with you, last night when I called you I had no idea who you were. I mean, I did on an unconscious level, but consciously, I was real' screwed up last night."In the following car ride, Ellen, visibly offended but too timid to refuse the date, stares silently out the window in an awkward pause that extends to several minutes. Robert, absent-mindedly gazes onto the road as he drives in circles, eventually dropping Ellen off at her house again and promising to make it up to her later because he can't go through with the date. It's a moment that exposes Robert as impolite, irresponsible and irritating, but somehow endearingly perplexed as a man hopelessly in love. And to me, that's essentially what every post-relationship phase comes down to: a state where actions in one's romantic life, or life in general, are only acceptable in their own head, but everyone who's been in the same place will surely understand. Of course, it's impossible to make the audience warm to a character so unlikable without humour but Brooks's impeccable comic timing - both in delivering his lines and in the structure of his script - makes Modern Romance a surprisingly delicate take on a topic so often painted in much broader strokes in Hollywood.