Plot: Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) and Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold) have been a couple for years or at least, they’ve been a couple for most of the time in those years, as splits are common for these two. The couple will break up, reunite, thrive, fall into boredom, then begin the cycle anew, each time vowing it will be the last, only to soon reconcile all over again. Robert has decided this time is finally the true end, as he knows the relationship just isn’t working and he is resolute in this decision, at least until a few minutes after the couple parts ways. He is soon desperate to have her back, as he feels like finding a partner will be impossible, but he resists the urge to call her and buries himself in his work. But is this truly the end for Robert and Mary and in either case, what will become of this troubled couple?
Entertainment Value: Albert Brooks’ second directorial effort has his imprint all over it, as Modern Romance has all the hallmarks of a Brooks picture through and through, for better or worse. The movie has a grounded, realistic feel with lightly absurd moments, but even those come off as plausible. The tone has some humorous threads, but this isn’t traditional comic material, more of a darkly insightful approach that rings so true, you can’t help but laugh a little. As Robert’s toxic, self destructive behavior escalates, the tone takes on a more serious, even tragic texture. Robert is not the usual lead character, as he is unlikable and I imagine most viewers will root against his search for love, especially in regard to Mary. I don’t think the movie sees him a villain however, just a flawed and deeply troubled man who is in a downward spiral and tries to drag down others with him, intentionally or not. Brooks’ approach here isn’t about fun or entertainment, but insight and interesting characters, so even if you’re not a big fan of his work, Modern Romance has a lot to offer. And if you’re a Brooks fan, then this is one you need to have in your collection.
Brooks writes, directs, and plays the lead here, so the movie reflects his style from top to bottom. This is great if you love his work, as this has a personal, grounded approach, but as I said, I think even those on the fence about him might find some positive elements in this one. His performance is terrific and he embodies the character well, a selfish and rather toxic man desperate for a real connections. He’s miserable when he is with Mary, but even more miserable when he is alone, but he is also too impatient to give himself time to be alone, rushing either into new scenarios or plotting on how to get back into Mary’s life. This is not a likable role and Brooks doesn’t relent or try to turn him into some kind of reformed man, so you have to admire his boldness in exploring such a non traditional lead. Kathryn Harrold gives a natural, worn down effort as Robert’s long suffering other half, while Bruno Kirby is quite good in a smaller, but important role as Robert’s friend and colleague. I also love George Kennedy here, who plays himself as an actor involved in a sci/fi b movie.
The Disc: This new transfer from Indicator is remarkable, a super clean and clear visual treatment that is a sizable improvement over previous DVD editions, adding much detail while retaining the film’s natural texture. The colors look spot on, contrast is always even, and as I said, fine detail is superb here. On the extras front, film historian Nick Pinkerton provides audio comments, cinematographer Eric Saarien stars in a fifteen minute interview, and we have the film’s theatrical trailer.