When Drew had suggested that we bring things back with 1981's Modern Romance, I joked that it was great that we were changing things up after Manhattan with another neurotic romantic dramedy. He insisted that "they couldn't be more different," and I took his word on that. Several colleagues praised it as one of the funniest comedies ever made; others (okay, it was Drew) pointed out that Stanley Kubrick himself once called it a "perfect" movie. As such, my expectations were vaguely hopeful, and for at least the first half, I felt like I could see what all the fuss was about.
Right off the bat, film editor Robert (Brooks) dumps Mary (Kathryn Harrold), not for the first time but for what he swears is the last time. He then stops by work, where Jay (Bruno Kirby) tries to assure him that he did the right thing and sends him home with a few Quaaludes. For maybe the next fifteen minutes, and with as few cuts as possible, Robert takes the 'ludes, gets ready for bed, calls Jay in an effort to show his gratitude and affection for him (yep, they've kicked in), talks to his pet bird, calls an old flame in an effort to get over Mary, gets dressed again in an effort to patch things up with Mary, all before passing out in his car before he can even leave his driveway.
I can't think of too many so-called rom-coms that kicked things off with the leads breaking up and then let the gravity of the situation settle in something approximating real time. More to the point, I felt like I was watching something that I hadn't seen before. Out with the formula, in with the patience to let characters dictate the laughs over gags -- not an unheard-of technique, but rare enough to feel refreshing in this instance. That pacing-the-house sequence, Robert's short-lived interest in sports soon after, the ill-fated date later that night, all of it felt funny and sadly true. And even when Robert soon reunites with Mary, there he is, ruing the concept of "movie love vs. real love" while Brooks lets his back hair speak to which kind we're meant to be watching. (And I'm not saying that to be vain or anything. When's the last romantic comedy you can think of where the male lead wasn't waxed and tanned within an inch of his life? See? Movie love.)
However, Robert's jealous tendencies later on reeked more and more of movie mania than real mania to me, a feasible obsession with which to keep our characters sabotaging their own relationship, but not necessarily a realistic cause for the actions that Robert proceeds to take. Brooks just keeps on wringing this awkward fixation for all its worth, up until delivering the climactic revelation that maybe these two do deserve each other, for better and worse -- a notion that I found more sad than anything. I struggled with the idea that Mary shared Robert's self-sabotaging tendencies; since we spend so much of the film watching Robert's every wrong movie, I couldn't see what was keeping her from throwing in the towel. She may have gone on a date, but she wasn't popping pills and taking up track and calling every other minute. I took that to mean that her seemingly well-adjusted character could, and would, break this love-hate cycle of theirs. But then we wouldn't have the "You Are So Beautiful" punchline, would we?
And just as Robert's work with the director and star (James L. Brooks and George Kennedy, respectively) of the movie he's currently cutting demonstrates how creative meddling can often result in similar compromises, I can't say that I found it all that funny after a while either. Taking out the unnecessary line of "You know NOTHING!" in an effort to sustain tension, and then being coaxed into putting it back in by a filmmaker and actor who both think it's a big moment? I see the humor and truth in that. I'm not sure that I found the foley work as funny as Drew seemed to, not because it isn't based in reality, but because it was yet another scene of our protagonist railing against futility.
That's not terribly romantic in my book, nor all that funny. It's truthful, and bless Brooks for going that route when so few opt for contrivance instead. I might relate more when I'm the same age as my colleagues (who all seem to be the same age now as the star was then), but for my own sake, I kind of hope not. I'll give Modern Romance credit for being an honest look at relationships, but maybe we get so many dashes to the airport in our movie diet and not as many desperate phone calls and drugged-up breakdowns for good reason -- because then we'd just end up with another love-hate relationship on our hands.
Until next time, you know NOTHING!