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With Modern Romance, writer/director/star Albert Brooks was dubbed a West Coast Woody Allen and, like Allen, Brooks has one of those personalities that can alienate an audience. People usually love him or find him way too annoying to watch. In Modern Romance Brooks takes his neurotic persona to new daring heights of annoyance playing Robert Cole, a Hollywood film editor. When the film opens he's breaking up with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), again, which seems to be a hobby for him. But like an addict for relationships it sends him into a torturous obsession over her, again. He tries to concentrate on his work and even tries dating others, but he can't, his obsession and jealousy get worse and worse. And with it Brooks turns the romantic comedy on its head, making one of the funniest films of the '80s.
Before moving into feature films Brooks was a cutting edge stand-up comedian. His style was almost a spoof of stand-up comedy and he was one of Johnny Carson's favorites, cutting his teeth on The Tonight Show. He made some brilliant short films the first season of Saturday Night Live (very unheralded in the show's history, they seem to never be acknowledged in the show's many retrospectives). Brooks has directed seven features since, the first four of which are gems. Real Life back in '79 foresaw the coming of reality TV early. It brilliantly teamed him with another underrated, acquired taste, Charles Grodin. Then Modern Romance, which could be considered his Annie Hall, took him in a new more sorta-mature direction. His next film, Lost In America, was an angst-epic and then Defending Your Life found Brooks romancing Meryl Streep in the afterlife. His next two films, The Muse and Mother, were forgettable at best and his last go as a director, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was abysmal. As an actor outside his own films he's had an interesting career, with roles ranging from Taxi Driver to Out Of Sight, he was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, and got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.
Brooks' early career was one long satire of show business, though his persona of a self-obsessed, egotistical, neurotic was the actual target of most of his comedy. In Modern Romance he's whiny and whines to himself and others continually. After the obsession with and near stalking of Mary, she strangely takes Brooks' character back (pushing the limits of believability). He explains how he drove around her house over and over, thinking that's love. She wonders if it's "movie love," something he saw in a movie (he then lays a romantic line on her, but admits it's from Easy Rider). And that's just it, Brooks' characters seem to always be playing for a camera, whether it's there or not. Brooks is alone on screen for nearly a quarter of the film, usually talking to himself or on a phone. It's an exhaustively, massive comic performance.
Modern Romance is also a time capsule to the early '80s. One of the best moments is a long scene with Brooks alone on quaaludes (perhaps the ecstasy of its day). In other '81 flashbacks, he dances to disco on his hi-fi stereo, he has an early prototype of an answering machine, he tries to get into the then "fads" of vitamins and jogging, his telephone bill is only $10, and George Kennedy is still working steadily in B-movies.
Brooks' character is editing an awful looking sci-fi film starring George Kennedy and Meadowlark Lemon (who appear as themselves). The insights into editing are as good as any movie about filmmaking. He and his assistant, Jay (Bruno Kirby), are ignored when they give great cutting advice to the film’s director played by James L. Brooks (then known as the creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, he would go on to be an actual big-time director making a splash with his first film, Terms Of Endearment, a few years later). Working with older, disgruntled technicians he is pooh-poohed when dubbing the film (trying to replace the sound of George Kennedy's footsteps with the sound of The Hulk is one of the film's best gags). And that was what the new Hollywood directors of Brooks' generation had to deal with when working with the old remnants of the fossilized studio system.
So much of Brooks' humor in this period was rebellious in nature. Though he usually plays some form of yuppie, desperate to belong or to be understood by the right people, Brooks, underneath, actually detests that guy (in turn making fun of the character he plays). From his stand-up through his Saturday Night Live shorts and his first couple of features, Albert Brooks seems to have been doing one long "put on." Are we supposed to root for the Modern Romance couple to get back together and find happiness? I'm not sure. Like a great villain you love to hate, Brooks created characters you loved to be annoyed by.