October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
Albert Brooks’ 1981 directorial effort might appear to be, on first viewing, about a man called Robert who can’t seem to make up his damn mind about a woman called Mary: about whether he wants to keep seeing her or whether he thinks they are just too damn incompatible to keep seeing each other. But on further analysis, that is to say ten to fifteen minutes spent thinking about the movie two to three days after having seen it for the first time, it becomes clear that Robert, embodied by writer-director Brooks, is in two minds from the very get-go, and that each one is pretty well made up, the only problem being that they are in stark opposition. In fact, the very foundation for much of the comedy in this film is Robert’s rapid oscillations between these two minds, or rather, the multiple minds he seems to be in with regards to most things in life. So fleetingly does he flit from one to the other, they might as well be simultaneous, which is precisely the crux of his state of crisis. Within single statements, single sentences, Robert repeatedly, dizzyingly contradicts and undercuts himself with an almost confessional naturalism on the part of Brooks, and the character portrait that results is one not of an individual who can’t make a decision per se, but one who can’t choose which decision to stick with, because if there’s one thing that Robert can do it’s to have an opinion or a take or multiple takes on something. It may very well be that having two contradictory minds shields him from having to pick a side and own up to any one decision, which is to say that Robert is highly insecure. This is precisely what makes him such a captivating on-screen presence, his contradictory nature that is, not necessarily his insecurity. In addition to Brooks’ expressively non-expressive face – and a pleasant one at that – the character of Robert doesn’t come across as hand-wringing and ineffectual but rather as very actively rash and self-absorbed. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing someone to love, it may be somewhat possible to simultaneously want and not want a person, but it’s probably a little harder to have them and not have them. At some point a choice is required.
What truly makes “Modern Romance” uniquely captivating, though, is that Mary – while not as obviously neurotic and excruciatingly needy as Robert – is deeply complicit in their yo-yoing pendulum of a love affair, perhaps because she is helplessly drawn to him, or perhaps because she is just as helplessly confused and in two minds as he is. Which leads directly to a key question, the question being: is ‘Modern Romance’ mostly a film about a man and his peculiar assortment of insecurities, is it about a couple and their inherent attraction to each other despite how terrible they might very well be for one another, or – as the title would suggest – is it a film about sex, love and commitment in (at the time) contemporary USA, the key word being ‘contemporary’? The truth is that Brooks’ picture is a bit of all three, but maybe in varying doses at different points along its runtime. On the strength of Robert’s pungency and nervy charisma as the film’s key protagonist and the fact that a viewer simply cannot escape his mindscape due to the fact that the film seems to continually adopt or at least imply his point-of-view and state of mind, ‘Modern Romance’ is something of a character study, though not a particularly incisive one. If the aim of a character study is to analyse and understand the inner workings of a character, the film is not emphatically successful as one if at all. Yet the insistence on Robert’s repetitive, one-note mode of thought and his apparent lack of insight is a clear move to exploit his neuroticism for comedic effect, which implies that the objective is not necessarily to understand why he is the way he is, but how the way he is influences the choices he make, in particular those pertaining to romance. Then there is the idea of the film being a kind of peek into the romantic life of a heterosexual couple in 1980s LA. Whether or not one considers Mary and Robert as being representative of an average mid to upper-middle class white couple on an archetypal level, or as being a couple representative only of themselves and as real as any that one would meet at a party or people-watch in a park, ‘Modern Romance’ is probably digested most easily as a love story with acerbic undertones: boy dumps girl, boy fears he has made a terrible mistake, boy bulldozes his way back into girl’s life. In this mode, it is a terrific piece of entertainment with a unique enough bent to ensure that audiences inundated with one lacklustre romantic tale after another will find themselves a little shook up.
Then there is the third approach one can take with this film, which is to view it as part of a wider movement in post-50s cinema which couldn’t help but obsess over the existential crisis facing ‘modernised’ mankind, at least in the West. As was the case with European films of the late fifties and sixties that examined the psychic pain individuals are burdened with when a society adopts new mores and values without necessarily retiring older, perhaps even contradictory modes of living and thinking, a handful of pictures from the New Hollywood era similarly dealt with the relative failure of the counterculture as not just a movement but as a wider cultural sea change; not simply its inability to completely debunk and replace traditional values that it considered oppressive and non-progressive, but the way in which even those who whole-heartedly embraced “free love” and the like were unable to successfully put these values into practice without drowning in angst and jealousy. This of course makes ‘Modern Romance’ sound a great deal headier that it actually is when the truth is that it is more in keeping with the works of Paul Mazursky al-a ‘ Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ which is not to suggest that either film is exactly fluff.
What happens when a society decides to offer a greater degree of choice to the individual, a society which has up to that point dictated the ways in which men and women are to ordinarily relate with one another, how love and sex are to operate, and how permanent ‘permanent’ is? Where a man was once expected to find a decent woman to call his wife – and vice versa, get married, procreate and stick with her till he or she died, modernity arrived along with the slogan that ‘God is dead’ and the assertion that each individual is a sovereign, sentient entity with the right to choose and the responsibility for their own fate. For many, this is a liberating idea which it very well should be, on paper at least, but for just as many – perhaps the very same many – this new approach brings with it a burden that sees many of these many retreating, ironically, to the comfort of prescribed thoughts and lifestyles (not to say that the counterculture itself wasn’t highly prescribed, though the drugs certainly weren’t.) Why exactly Robert Cole is so insecure – as mentioned already – doesn’t appear to be the central concern of ‘Modern Romance,’ but rather, how being granted – by modern Western society – the relative freedom to choose what shape and form his love life will take causes him more pain than it does pleasure. For someone as insecure as Robert, and for that matter Mary, there is perhaps nothing as confusing and terrifying as feeling the need to commit (whether as a result of traditional inculcation, fear of loneliness or personal belief) whilst being offered the choice of being utterly non-committal in favour of ‘free love’ (which one might opt for due to indiscipline, fear of commitment, sex addiction or personal belief.) Maybe in an earlier time or in a different culture more suspicious or less tolerant of transitory romantic practices, Robert would simply be forced to marry Mary, stay married and become quietly resentful. Does ‘Modern Romance’ seem to be suggesting that some modern folk just aren’t modern enough to pursue sex and romance without guilt and/or the feeling that love isn’t real until drawn up and signed, but not traditional enough to make it last in a traditional sense? Whatever it’s suggesting, it obviously finds it funny; painfully funny.