Albert Brooks’ second feature film Modern Romance (1981) is a satire unlike few others in popular cinema. As the title suggests, Brooks’ has honed his comical eye on the conventions of romance, but the film extends into the realm of reflexivity as it parodies the directorial excess that marked the American auteur films of the early eighties. However, the primary concern of Modern Romance is in fact with modern romance. To understand the conventions Brooks’ rails against in his film it is, for better or worse, necessary to determine where contemporary notions of what is romantic derive from.
It is well known that until the First World War the intelligentsia was predominantly of the European aristocracy. The customs and etiquette of this exclusive world have been popularized by the likes of Jane Austen for over a century. In the aristocratic world of privilege education was taken for granted and marriage a means of securing position. In this environment, where women marry men of equal or superior social rank, a fantasy was allowed to evolve. This fantasy existed out of necessity, a coping mechanism to ensure individual emotional sustainability. A woman married to a man for whom she harbors no genuine affection or admiration is likely to fantasize about a suitor driven by his love for her. Likewise another scenario that is equally probable is that of the male suitor who is totally obsessed with his romantic fixation on a particular female. Both fantasies offer what in reality is sorely lacking.
These romantic fantasies have been permitted to permeate our popular culture since their conception, from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Though it is almost immediately clear that equating true love with obsession is in actual implementation quite unhealthy for all parties involved, relatively few artists have sought to discredit this notion. Surely Jane Austen felt it fit to weave a cautionary tale or two around this dilemma in both Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Theodor Fontane warns of the emotional death of a poorly made match in Effi Briest, in which the title protagonist’s obsession with another man causes irreparable damage to her relationship with her husband. Similarly, Goethe pinpoints the tragedy of romantic obsession with his bitter and tragic The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which ends in suicide. It is Brooks’ scrutiny of romantic conventions and expectations that place his film in the same critical realm as these novels by Austen, Fontane and Goethe.
Yet, Brooks is not particularly concerned with literature. His unique approach to discrediting popular romantic notions is certainly indebted, knowingly or not, to the novelists mentioned above, but his over all concerns are in the filmic tradition of narrative, which is by all means a direct descendant of the novel. Where Jane Austen’s protagonists were bookish and intellectually inquisitive, Robert (Albert Brooks) of Modern Romance is a neurotic film editor. The occupations and hobbies of Austen and Brooks’ protagonists pits them against the conventions of the mediums in which they exist by making them aware of the conventions of these mediums, either the novel or the film. The difference is that the proto-feminism of Austen’s protagonists places them in opposition of convention, Brooks’ Robert seeks to conform to the conventions of romance that exist only in the un-reality of film.
Robert’s obsession with his on-again off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathyrn Harrold) suffocates her identity and independence as much as it flatters her. What Brooks has done was to transpose the obsessiveness that is glorified as romance in films such as Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Roundtable (1953) and Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1952) into a contemporary setting. Where Robert Taylor’s pursuit of Ava Gardner was chivalrous in it’s context, now Brooks presents it as the fantasy fulfillment of a highly neurotic editor. Robert’s gestures of affection by no means match those of Taylor as Lancelot, but the parallel does point to the notion that such behavior is masculinely romantic. This parallel is successful in Modern Romance because like Gardner’s Queen, Mary is constantly smitten by such gestures. What Brooks does add to the equation in Modern Romance is the fruition of such behavior through to its logical course in the character of Robert. If a man is so determined and obsessed with possessing his partner as Lancelot is in our “modern” society, it only makes sense that he would stalk her and spy on her; Robert does both.
These romantic attributes of Robert’s character make him completely unlikeable. His behavior constantly jockeys Mary from intimacy to expulsion, break-up through to reunion. This kind of love affair, though exaggerated in Modern Romance, does in fact exist outside of the cinema in our reality. Even people I know conform to such behavior and some even go so far as to measure a lover’s commitment by their obsessive one mindedness as it pertains unto themselves. It is a sickness, and Brooks takes no prisoners in lampooning this sociological infection that began with the aristocracy so long ago.
Modern Romance does not, however, trace this conditioning as far back as that, instead settling on the cinema itself as the propagator of such immoral inclinations. Midway through the film Mary questions if Robert’s love for her is real or just “movie love”. This statement could very well be the thesis of Modern Romance, but Brooks takes his indictment of popular narrative cinema further in his scenes with Bruno Kirby editing a Star Wars (1977) knock off film featuring George Kennedy similar to the Roger Corman produced cult classic Star Crash (1979).
This George Kennedy science fiction epic signifies the uniformity of the Hollywood machine responsible for the sociological conditioning that has informed Robert’s romantic sensibilities. In Modern Romance, James L. Brooks plays the director of this sci-fi blockbuster, and voices all sorts of concerns from the sound of George Kennedy running to the use of the phrase “bowels of the ship” in his own film because the same phrase was used in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Similarly the 87-minute version of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is explicitly referenced at the conclusion of the foley sound sequence. These filmic reference points reflect the concern Hollywood has not only for mass-market accessibility, but intellectual closed mindedness. Both are symptoms of the same sickness that has contaminated Robert’s psyche and has shaped him into the neurotic mess that he is.
Albert Brooks manages to skillfully balance these allegations with the comedic scenarios he puts his character Robert in. Often Brooks’ criticism of our media addicted society into the subtext of scenes by allowing the scenes to play out a superficial surface comedy. This balance that keeps Modern Romance cohesive can be largely credited to the film’s co-writer Monica Johnson, a veteran screenwriter of the sitcom.
This is largely the reason why Modern Romance, along with many others of Brooks’ films, has been unable to find a long-term niche audience. Unlike a writer and director such as Woody Allen, Brooks’ films do not cater to one kind of comedic sensibility at a time. Allen’s films range from high brow dramas like Another Woman to a kind of low brow escapist filmmaking like Bananas (1971), with each film concentrating on its supposed stylistic elements. Albert Brooks’ fidelity is not to the elitist auteur notion of comedian, but seeks instead to mask the more pointedly intellectual investigations and satires of his films behind an easily accessible humor akin to that of Nora Ephron or Elaine May.
That the comedic sensibilities of Modern Romance should be so closely linked to the aesthetics of two female filmmakers is also rather telling. Quite like Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) as well as Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Albert Brooks’ comedy about the sexes does not align any greater degree of audience sympathy with either the male or female sex, opting instead to equalize the two by developing neither the male nor the female characters in a way that presents them to be morally correct nor more virtuous. The history of film shows that the majority of filmmakers who are male, from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, will construct their relationship comedies to show either the male or the female is the “right” one, thus aligning the audience with either one sex or the other. In Modern Romance the male lead is despicable and needy just as his female counterpart is overly defensive and aloof, effectively negating the polarizing sexual politics of other film directors.
The sum of these various components is what keeps Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance from any kind of popular sustainability. The film, with its loud surface and intellectual subtexts, is just too dense to sit comfortably with most contemporary audiences. In America, audiences like to be told or shown who to root for, and to be instructed as to what intellectual notion is the most politically correct and acceptable at the moment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a new codification to romantic narrative seems so unattainable and distant.