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“She’s always right” — Josh Reviews Modern Romance (1981)

Drew McWeeny (who has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com) has a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response.  To read more about this series, click here and then here.  Recently he and Mr. Goss invited other writers to get involved in their film conversations.  Since the last film under discussion was Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), I was really excited to chime in.  (Here’s Mr. McWeeny’s piece about Manhattan.  Here’s what Mr. Goss wrote, and here’s what I had to say.)

Now Mr. McWeeny is writing about Albert Brooks’ 1981 film Modern Romance. What a terrific choice!  It had been a few years since I had last seen the film, so I was happy to have an excuse to pull it off my DVD shelf and give it a viewing.

The great Albert Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film) plays Robert Cole, one one the most neurotically messed-up characters I’ve ever seen captured on film.  As the movie opens, Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold, who I always think of as Francine from The Larry Sanders Show).  From her reaction it is clear that this has happened before, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this opening-scene break-up doesn’t exactly break that cycle.

Modern Romance is very leisurely paced, with long scenes that aren’t in a rush to get to the punchline.  But don’t let that lead you to think that the film isn’t funny.  Quite the contrary, it is hysterical.  This is one of the most quotable comedies that I know.  It might be my favorite Albert Brooks movie, and that’s mostly because of the script’s tremendous wit.

In his review, Mr. McWeeny comments that he loves the way that Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to digress in the film.  That pretty well sums up one of the strongest aspects, in my opinion, of Modern Romance.  My very favorite moments in the film are the ones that have nothing at all to do with Robert’s on-again off-again cycle with Mary.  I’m talking about the glimpses at Robert’s job as a film editor, working on a lousy-looking science-fiction picture.  That the film takes ten minutes to present us with a scene that’s all about how editing works (as Robert makes an edit to the sci-fi film that he feels strengthens the suspense of a scene) is just wonderful to me.  It helps, of course, that the greatly-missed Bruno Kirby (When Harry Met Sally, The Godfather Part II) and James L. Brooks (the director of films like Broadcast News, here playing the crappy sci-fi movie’s director) appear in these segments of the film.  These are the scenes that I most look forward to every time I re-watch Modern Romance.

The only place where I disagree with Mr. McWeeny is in his description of the film’s ending as perfect.  I must admit that I always find myself deeply unsettled when the ending arrives.  I’ll tread carefully here, to avoid ruining the film’s conclusion for any newbies.  Let me just say that my sympathy for Mary, who I have come to adore over the course of the movie, overwhelms the humor a little bit for me as the final text pieces arrive.  Perhaps that’s the point, but for me the film — which to that point had perfectly balanced comedy with some frank, awkward moments — looses its balance a teensy bit.  (It’s hard to find a place to end a film that is all about two characters’ never-ending love/hate cycle.)  But any quibbles that I have about the ending do nothing to dilute my overall love for this very funny ride.

It would be overly simplistic for me to assert that they don’t make comedies like this anymore.  Surely there are still great, complex comedies being made that also have real dramatic heft.  (One might site Judd Apatow’s recent film Funny People as an example.)  But Modern Romance does, to me, feel like a type of film that is hard to find these days.  I’ll admit that there is a nostalgia factor that might be coloring my opinion somewhat.  As I re-watch it, I can clearly remember being in college and discovering this film (along with Lost in America, as well as so many other great comedies, such as Woody Allen’s previously-mentioned Manhattan, as well as Annie Hall, Zelig, I could go on forever…) and feeling like I had stumbled upon a whole new world of incredible films.  But even separate from those emotions, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone denying that Modern Romance is a comedy classic.  (Though I do know some people who find this film boring.  My heart weeps for them.)

If you only know Albert Brooks from Finding Nemo (which is a great movie, don’t get me wrong), you need to track down this film immediately.

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