Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 25, 2021)
After a career as a comedian and short-film creator, Albert Brooks produced his first full-length movie with 1979’s Real Life. Two years later, Brooks returned with his second feature via 1981’s Modern Romance.
Robert Cole (Brooks) works as a Hollywood film editor. He dates lovely Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), a bank executive who exhibits immense patience throughout their up and down relationship.
The issues stem from Robert’s neuroses, as he can’t decide whether to commit to Mary or continue to play the field. We follow their relationship and Robert’s attempts to settle this issue.
Although I firmly believe that we need to watch movies through the eyes of their own era, some films make it more difficult to do than others. In that category falls Romance, a story whose lead character comes across much differently than would’ve been the case 40 years ago.
Let’s face it: Robert offers an emotionally unstable weirdo. Sure, Brooks plays him for laughs, but in 2021, he still comes across as closer to “obsessed stalker” than “likable schlub”.
Even if I ignore the 2021 interpretation of the film, Romance comes with issues, mainly because Brooks struggles to create a real narrative. Rather than give us a consistent character piece, Romance often feels like a loosely-connected collection of comedic sequences.
As noted earlier, Brooks’ earliest films were of the short variety, and that format may suit him best. He seems better able to construct an engaging five-minute piece versus one that demands 90 minutes or more of narrative and character development.
At no point do Robert or Mary become convincing personalities. As noted, he seems like little more than a comedic version of a stalker, while Mary is just a pretty cipher who exists as an object to be won more than as a person.
Brooks stages comedic scenes that go on forever and bear little connection to the overall plot – partly because the “story” seems so thin anyway. Romance essentially offers 93 minutes of Robert’s neurotic behavior without much real attempt to give us more than that.
This can become reasonably funny at times, and no one questions Brooks’ inherent comedic talent. However, we find ourselves stuck with seemingly endless scenes that pay off only in the most minor story-related ways, and the whole film feels like a mess most of the time.
All of this comes as a disappointment. Modern Romance boasts the bones of an involving look at its subject, but it winds up as little more than a loose connection of comedic beats without much coherence.