“You’ve heard of a no-win situation, haven’t you?… Vietnam; this.” —Albert Brooks, Modern Romance
LaMotta vs. Janiro. There are some ugly fights in Raging Bull, like when Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) drops his arms and takes the punishment he thinks he deserves, holding himself upright as his own blood drips from saturated ropes. But not on this night. Jake is the one meting out punishment to Tony Janiro, a young middleweight challenger, and he’s doing it almost entirely with blows to the head. His wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) had mentioned in passing that Janiro was handsome and Jake, consumed by pathological jealousy, wants to break the kid’s face for it. When Janiro hits the floor, Jake raises his arms and flashes a malevolent smile in Vickie’s direction. “He ain’t pretty no more,” says a ringside observer.
Then the cycle begins again.
Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance came out a year after Raging Bull, and at no point does Brooks’ Robert Cole resort to fisticuffs over Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), his on-again/off-again girlfriend. Raging Bull is a black-and-white period drama and Modern Romance is a contemporary romantic comedy, but the two films play like companion pieces, each a disturbing and unrelenting profile of male jealousy and obsession. Jake exerts power through brute force, every bit the ferocious animal the title implies; Robert resorts to relentless passive-aggression, masking his emotional violence with the assurance that passion dictates his possessiveness. Jake thrashes his opponents in the ring, and turns on his wife, his brother (Joe Pesci), and finally himself. For Robert, the words “I love you” act like a soft punch that sting in the same way, because they keep him in a relationship that brings joy to neither party, but staves off the possibility that Mary can be with anyone else but him.
For Brooks to smuggle these insights into a comedy—and an exceptionally funny one at that—is an achievement that should be respected as much as Martin Scorsese’s perennial best-of-all-time favorite, but rarely gets the same acknowledgement, if it gets acknowledged at all. (One exception: Stanley Kubrick, who loved Modern Romance so much that he reportedly contacted Brooks out of the blue to ask him how he pulled it off. It sounds absurd until you consider how much Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut taps into the same phenomenon.) Much like Brooks’ debut feature, Real Life, Modern Romance is a bold act of comic deconstruction, starting with the deliberately blunt title, which isn’t about “romance” any more than the earlier film was about “life.” Before making movies, Brooks’ stand-up, short films, and talk-show appearances made delicious sport out of breaking down tired gags, like ventriloquism, celebrity impersonations, and the spit-take. Modern Romance promises—and, in its perverse way, delivers—a love story for our time, but it relentlessly exposes the impulses that keep bad relationships going, bonded in perpetual dysfunction.
Brooks wastes no time. In the very first scene, Robert breaks up with Mary, likening their “no-win situation” to the Vietnam War. Mary rolls her eyes. This has happened before. We don’t know how many times they’ve broken up and gotten back together before, but Modern Romance opens somewhere in the middle of their relationship, not the beginning of it. And as the film unfolds, we can see plainly why they don’t work as a couple. They have nothing in common. She works at a bank and he works as a film editor, and both have trouble even feigning interest in the other’s job. They fight constantly, which at least leads to great make-up sex. There’s no evidence they even like each other. Robert uses the word “love” to express a burbling cauldron of ugly emotions; Mary seems so worn down by his relentless entreaties that she keeps coming back.
The relationship would end if not for two related factors: 1. Robert cannot be alone for a second. 2. Robert cannot bear the thought of Mary sleeping with another man. Modern Romance makes hilarious sport of the former in an extended post-break-up where Robert pops two Quaaludes and spends a long night stumbling around his apartment, making phone calls to his assistant editor (Bruno Kirby), arranging a rebound date with a woman he can’t even remember (“I didn’t even think you liked me,” she says), and chatting up his pet bird Petey. To continue the Raging Bull analogy, the scene is like the comic equivalent of LaMotta alone in the jail cell, pounding the walls with his fists as if trying to break through the prison of his own conscience. These are metaphorical walls that both men have constructed—and in Robert’s case, not even a couple of ‘ludes can soften the concrete.
But jealousy is the true driver. As Robert’s mind continues to circle around the thought that Mary, now unbound and unmonitored, might take an interest in other suitors, Brooks makes a visual joke out of his psychosis. In one continuous shot, he drives a first date around the block and drops her back off again, unable to go through with it. He then picks up a peace offering at a department store, leaves it in front of Mary’s door, and does some more circling until she comes back home and perhaps gives him another chance. Robert isn’t so much of a monster that he doesn’t realize how crazy this behavior seems. “I don’t know what makes me do these things,” he tells Mary in bed. “It’s just some lizard brain in me or something.” But he’s enough of a monster to follow that up with, “The only thing that makes me think it’s wrong is that you don’t do it.”
The morning after their reconciliation, Robert is back to haranguing Mary for stepping out in a form-fitting dress. “Honey, there’s people who only rape,” he says. “That’s all they do.” And now we’ve back to the same pattern again, with Robert eying suspicious calls on her long-distance bill and disrupting a business dinner with a bunch of men to drag her away for a “surprise” romantic getaway that he hasn’t actually planned. Like Raging Bull, Modern Romance has the suffocating quality of being penned into one man’s headspace, relieved only by scenes of Robert at work in the editing suite, cutting together a Z-grade sci-fi film starring George Kennedy. Even then, Robert’s job seems like a metaphor for his need to control and micromanage every aspect of Mary’s life, like he’s the one who has final cut.
As always, Brooks refuses to let his on-screen alter-ego off the hook, which may be why he’s never been much of a hitmaker behind the camera. His neurosis isn’t cute like Woody Allen’s, and he never betrays a hint of vanity. After this and Lost In America, Brooks finally showed some interest in being liked with Defending Your Life, but even there, he’s playing someone so paralyzed with fear and self-doubt that he seems consigned to earthly Purgatory forever. Modern Romance leaves Robert’s “lizard brain” exposed for the audiences to see, but doing it in the context of a comedy is radical, since Brooks has so little interest in ingratiating himself to the audience. Many comedians are willing to do anything for a laugh, but Brooks goes much further with Modern Romance. Comedy is a stage, where the bull here can rage.