Thursday, December 17, 2009
In The Right Way
This is a tough town, filled with insecurity, doubt and self-loathing. And that’s only what goes on in my apartment. I’m not sure if I have the necessary experience to be the guy to write a screenplay that focuses on the hell of a long-term relationship. Too much time by myself, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand every single frame of the anguish in Albert Brooks’ essential MODERN ROMANCE, his 1981 comedy that succeeds so well it’s almost the only Albert Brooks film you’ll ever need. Of course, a few of his other films, as well as his great album COMEDY MINUS ONE, can easily be placed in the pantheon but this one is just extra special in its own way. It plays like the purest expression of the man’s own comic persona that he ever pulled off and possibly the closest to pure, honest discomfort that any form of American comedy took until Larry David decided to get in front of the camera full time. By this point, it’s a fair question why Albert Brooks has never actually appeared on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Maybe the dialogue he crafts is carefully worked out into the proper syntax and because of that his individual approach just wouldn’t work in that type of improv environment. Maybe there is no good reason. Only the second feature Brooks directed, MODERN ROMANCE was according to accounts a favorite of Stanley Kubrick who had long wanted to make his own film on jealousy—Brooks once told Entertainment Weekly, “…one day I was sitting at home and the phone rings. It's Stanley Kubrick. He had seen the movie and wanted to know how I did it. That's the first thing he said -- 'How did you make this movie? I've always wanted to make a movie about jealousy.' I said to him, The guy who did 2001 is asking me how I did something?''' One wonders why no one has ever run a double bill of this film with EYES WIDE SHUT. I say that the New Beverly should get right on that.
Film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) decides to break it off with girlfriend Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). Surprised that she won’t stay for dinner after the breakup (“Wait a minute, come back, we can at least eat.”), he returns to work where he is editing a sci-fi film for his director David (James L. Brooks) and assistant editor Jay (Bruno Kirby). Unable to concentrate on work, he sets out to rebuild his life to do whatever he can to get his mind off Mary. This is of course easier said then done and the pattern of what their relationship is going through proves impossible to break. Meanwhile, his film’s director has come up with the perfect way to make the whole last part of the picture work: footsteps.
If pressed, I would probably admit that Brooks’ LOST IN AMERICA which came several years later is his most purely enjoyable film with the most quotable dialogue and some of REAL LIFE is pretty damn near brilliant as well but it’s MODERN ROMANCE, written by him and Monica Johnson, more than any of the others that can really get under your skin. When I was younger I thought while some of it was hysterical, other parts were a little too bland—the use of “You Are So Beautiful” seemed clichéd, the arguments a little too monotonous. But now that I’m older I can see that these elements are how Robert Cole sees it all and his tiny house in the hills with his record albums (“Look at all my albums!”) and his Porsche should be enough but every single step he takes has to be overanalyzed before he breaks down and admits every fear that he has. The prolonged scene of him at home after taking the ‘ludes that assistant editor Jay gives him, wandering his house, looking at his albums (“God I have so many great albums! I love my albums! I love ‘em, I love ‘em!”), making phone calls to people (including one back to Jay after the ‘ludes have ‘kicked in’ to say that he loves him “in the right way”) shows us the guy unexpurgated and seemingly things can only get better after that. Or so we think, as we follow him make attempts to start his post-breakup life, prefacing every time he goes shopping for life-improvements with an explanation of what he’s doing (“I just broke up with somebody and I’m trying to start a new life and I feel that running should be a major part of it.”) It’s not a visually distinguished movie in the slightest but it’s really not supposed to be. In following Robert Cole around everywhere looking at it through the direction of the man playing him it does exactly what it’s supposed to do cinematically and its unflinching manner makes it clear why Kubrick was apparently such a fan. And unflinching in terms of the discomfort—I’ve made it through certain awkward scenes on CURB without fleeing the room but the aborted date with HERO AT LARGE’s Jane Hallaren (“What does she look like?”) is almost too painful for me to watch without fast-forwarding.
It’s tempting to say that the whole movie should have been just Brooks by himself, torturing the world with his troubles (“I broke up with sombody, I’m just gonna buy a few gifts!” he tells a parking attendant) since the tension does calm down a little after Harrold reenters the picture. After all, the pre-credit sequence where they break up at Hamburger Hamlet the breakup seems to encapsulate everything we need to know about that relationship, peaking all the tension right away--trying to say that they’re in a no-win situation which Mary says she’s never heard of Robert asks, “Really, you’ve never heard of one? Vietnam. This.” In some ways the movie’s final stretch is almost its least satisfying part, something which is probably what ranks this one below a few of his other films. It makes sense to finally isolate the two characters in a cabin away from everyone by a certain point but the ultimate inspiration that is present in the rawest moments when Brooks is by himself isn’t quite there. Endings have never exactly been Albert Brooks’s strongest point but the truth in MODERN ROMANCE is what finally matters and even if the accoutrements surrounding the lead have changed in this modern world the truth still holds. After all, guys still do drive by the houses of women even when they shouldn’t be. So I hear. I mean, I’ve certainly never done that and don’t believe anyone who ever tells you otherwise.
Those who’ve seen and can recite whole pages of dialogue from MODERN ROMANCE by heart probably also love it for the side stuff as much as anything, namely Robert’s film editing job in which he is cutting a sci-fi film, apparently for AIP. We never hear the title of the opus but we do get a few glimpses of it as they work on it, complete with use of old-style Steenbecks. The exact plot of the film being directed by the character played by James L. Brooks (who at this point had yet to make his first feature but of course later used Albert in several he directed) is never clear but it clearly does star George Kennedy whose big scene seems to consist of screaming about a secret code then shouting down the immortal line “You know nothing!” at one of his underlings who claims to know that code. We see the editors played by Brooks & Kirby figure out a way to lose the line to help the plot but the director insists it stay in because, well, he loves the line. After all, don’t you love “You know nothing!” also? In the ADR session that follows in which Brooks and Kirby try to deal with the issue of “footsteps” they are also confronted with the audio library track “Hulk Running” which brilliantly introduced that simple phrase into the lexicon. This probably played as mundane in-joke at the time (HEAVEN’S GATE, the short version, is the next film coming into the looping stage during the ADR scene) but now comes off as flat-out absurdity and in its way is probably as believable a look at the Hollywood creative process that there’s ever been. And seriously, the glimpse of Kennedy in the film has to be one of my favorite things ever—he also appears as “himself” later in the film as well, making this not only the second consecutive film I’ve written about featuring George Kennedy, but the second one made by a director who also stars in it. For Brooks fans there’s a few hints of films to come as well, with some phone conversations with an unseen mother character of course looking forward to 1996’s MOTHER and there’s even an EASY RIDER mention that prefigures LOST IN AMERICA.
A few points also give a nice look at zoned out L.A. circa 1981 as well with a party scene that contains bit parts from a few behind-the-scenes people Brooks was probably friends with, Kennedy as “Himself” telling a long story that his director wants him to use on Merv Griffin and even Meadowlark Lemon in a random cameo that is presumably meant to be a comment on, well, random cameos in movies. The sequence also seems to contain some casual offscreen drug use by one of the film’s leads (“You have some white on your nose”) and the observational nature of it seems to come from someone who has definitely been to more than a few of these types of parties. For anyone who knows L.A. there are a few interesting locations spotted as well—the Hamburger Hamlet where the opening scene occurs was still there until some point in the mid-90s. I miss how there used to be Hamburger Hamlets scattered around the city and MODERN ROMANCE seems to be a record of a time when this was the case. For the record, there’s some fairly liberal nudity from Kathryn Harold and to mollify those who complain about lack of equality we also get to see just how hairy Albert Brooks was.
It’s impossible to talk about Brooks as an actor in this film without also dealing with him as director since it barely seems like there’s a frame in the film he’s not in. He’s fearless, never seeming to worry about trying to make this guy in the slightest bit likable which almost makes him more relatable. There’s no distance so we can absolutely identify with him. It should also be stated that Brooks performs the best fake taking down of a phone number ever seen in a movie. Some of the best stuff in the movie is just him dealing with people on the phone. Kathryn Harrold is a very good level-headed personality for him to bounce of off in all this and even if her part isn’t as strong as what Julie Hagerty would have a few years later opposite Brooks she gets you to absolutely believe how she feels about this guy at both ends of the spectrum. James L. Brooks is generally not an actor so his effectiveness as the director makes you wonder if this is what it’s like to really work on one of the real guy’s films. Albert’s brother Bob Einstein (amazing as Marty Funkhauser on, whaddya know, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM) is perfect in his deadpan way as the sporting goods salesman ready to get Robert Cole to buy as much in his store as humanly possible (“Where’re you gonna carry your money? You gonna run broke?”) and as for George Kennedy, his reading of “You know nothing!” is, if I didn’t make it clear, without a doubt one of the finest moments of his career. As James L. Brooks says, I love that line.
Albert Brooks has spoken of how he resisted attempts by Columbia to get him to add a psychiatrist scene which would allow the film to explain why the character acts the way he does. Such a scene would not only have bee unnecessary it would have thrown things out of whack because in its strict observational fashion the film shouldn’t be answering this anymore than Robert Cole could or any of us could about our own private versions of this film. Maybe MODERN ROMANCE doesn’t keep up its own level of painful brilliance all the way to the end, but its best sequences are so dead-on in how hysterically accurate they are much of the time that it always feels necessary to have a copy of this DVD close by. And I still wonder how that George Kennedy movie finally turned out.