It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, but that’s because Will Goss got caught trying to smuggle 7.3 metric tons of Gourdough’s gourmet doughnuts out of Austin, TX. Internally. And the AMA needed to study him to see how he kept his heart from exploding.
Now that the study is complete (answer: he deep-fried it), Goss is ready for his latest installment of “The Basics.” Last time we did this, he watched “Manhattan,” and I didn’t mean to move on to a neurotic romantic comedy from a writer/director as a follow-up, but when Goss told me he’d just rented a stack of movies recently and he listed off the titles, I couldn’t resist one of the ones he was about to watch. “Modern Romance!” I wrote to him. “Please! Make it ‘Modern Romance’!”
Why? Well, it’s hard for viewers with no long-term memory to understand why Albert Brooks is significant to film comedy. An “In-Laws” remake? “The Muse”? “Looking For Comedy in The Muslim World”? It’s been a while since he’s done something worth serious consideration, but man… when he did…
I have trouble reconciling the Brooks of those later films with the guy who made some of my favorite comedies of the ’70s and ’80s. There was a time when I thought he was making truly lacerating films about the ways in which we were failing ourselves as a culture. “Real Life” managed to burn reality TV to the ground before there ever was such a thing, and it retains every bit of its bite thirty years later. “Lost In America” demolished the whole obsession that the baby boomers had with ’60s culture and the “freedom” they supposedly gave up when they “sold out,” and I think the reason the film didn’t do better is because it was a bitter pill to swallow. Even in his later “Defending Your Life,” he managed to score powerful points about what we call courage in life and how we all compromise ourselves, little by little, day after day, all wrapped up in what looks like a high-concept comedy about Heaven. Brilliant.
But above any of his other films, there’s “Modern Romance.” This is the movie that inspired Stanley Kubrick to call Brooks in the middle of the night to praise him for making a “perfect” movie. I watch this film at least twice a year, and what always amazes me is how effortless the whole thing seems. It’s organic, seamless, simple, and every sequence yields comedy gold over and over. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, the premise is simplicity itself. Film editor Robert Cole (Brooks) has been in a merry-go-round relationship with the smoking hot Mary Harvard (played by Kathryn Harrold at her most jaw-dropping) for a while, and they do this masochistic square dance where they break up, then get back together, then break up, then get back together. It’s an unhealthy cycle. The film starts with Robert telling Mary that he can’t do it anymore, and that he needs out. At first, she just shrugs him off. She’s heard it enough times that she doesn’t take him seriously. But when he pushes the issue, she finally blows up in frustration and tells him this is it. She’s done for real. Don’t call her. Don’t try to take it back. This is it. The last time. It’s over.
Robert goes by work briefly to talk to his assistant editor Jay (played by a very young Bruno Kirby), then heads home to spend an evening recovering from the emotional trauma of the break-up. The twelve minutes or so that follow remain one of my favorite comedy scenes in any film. Robert takes a couple of Quaaludes that Jay gives him, and as they kick in, all of his inhibitions vanish. He ends up calling women he barely knows to ask them out, talking to Jay on the phone and professing his love to him, railing angrily against an editor who calls looking for a job recommendation, and talking continuously to his bird Petey.
It’s just Brooks onscreen for the full 12 minutes, but he ends up not only making you laugh, but revealing everything you need to know about his character for the rest of the film. He ends up making a date for the next night with some woman he can’t remember, then stumbles out of his house, determined to go see Mary. He passes out in his car before he can go anywhere, though, and the next morning, he sees that as a sign. “No contact,” he repeats over and over, determined to keep it that way. Robert sets out to build a new life for himself, one that has nothing to do with Mary, one where he won’t think about Mary. He’s convinced that all he has to do is make it a few days and he’ll be over her completely.
In another great scene, he decides to take up running, and a guy at the athletic supply store (played by Albert’s real-life brother Bob Einstein, better known as Super Dave Osborne) hard-sells him a ton of stuff he doesn’t need. It’s a perfect illustration of how vulnerable and off-balance Robert is, and how much he’s looking for something to help him deny his real desire, which is to get back together with Mary and apologize immediately.
What the film really deals with is the urge that so many people seem to have to destroy the good things in their lives in order to make sure they have drama. We see this all the time in our culture now on passes as “reality television,” these people who seem to crave the emotional devastation that comes from these types of tempestuous relationships. Conflict junkies. When you watch something like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” now, comedy where our main character is unlikeable or weak or frustratingly crass, you have to go back to “Modern Romance” as one of the templates.
And I love the way Brooks isn’t afraid to digress. The film’s a fairly brisk 90 minutes, but there are plenty of little side moments that add nothing except for gut-busting hilarity. Take, for example, the scene where Robert takes the sci-fi film he’s cutting to a dubbing stage to lay down some Foley effects in a scene. The sound editors and their thinly-disguised contempt is hilarious, and you’ll never think of the Hulk the same way again after the scene. I love seeing James L. Brooks play an insecure director. Watch for the hilarious but subtle touch in which a scene that discusses the importance of editing is itself intentionally overlong and poorly edited.
But it all comes back to the relationship between Brooks and Harrold, and she’s never been given a better role. She gives as good as she gets in her scenes with Brooks, and when he does try to get back together with her, then lets his own fears and neuroses overwhelm him, we can see how much she wants to make it work, and how much she also wishes she could just get him out of her system. And the way the film concludes is perfect, one joke building on top of another as “You Are So Beautiful” plays on the soundtrack, the single best use of that song that anyone will ever manage in a movie.
I hope you like it, Goss, and I can’t wait to read your response in the days ahead over on Cinematical.
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