The Collection Project Film of the Day:
Albert Brooks has made, by my count, three classic films (four, depending on how I feel about Defending Your Life on the day you ask me): Real Life, Lost in America and Modern Romance. I honestly believe that, in the world of comedy filmmaking, where sustaining a comic premise and making it consistently funny is a frickin' ballbuster, this is a considerable achievement. Modern Romance, which Brooks wrote with frequent collaborator Monica Johnson, is, in particular, not just a classic, but a comic masterpiece (it's this film, in fact, that led Stanley Kubrick to contact Brooks and express his deep admiration for his work, which, in turn, led to the two men developing a long distance friendship -- it ended only when Brooks casually, and naturally, suggested he visit Kubrick at his home). Watching the film again -- as I am actually doing right now as we speak -- is something of a revelation, despite the fact that I've seen it numerous times over the years.
The premise of Modern Romance is simple. Brooks plays Robert Cole, a film editor, who, as the film opens, breaks up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold), and immediately enters a neurotic, lonely tailspin. This tailspin accounts for about the first half of the film, said half containing one of the greatest performances in comedy. This performance is delivered, of course, by Brooks, as he blunders through a number of scenes and set-pieces that could function as exquisite, self-contained sketches. The first of these involves his first night alone after the break-up. He's fortified himself with a couple of Quaaludes given to him by his assistant editor, Jay (the late, deeply lamented Bruno Kirby). So he spends the night alone, doped up, making phone calls he has no business making ("I have love for you, Ellen"), and taking calls when he should have just let the phone ring ("You're Mr. Trashcan!"). This scene lasts a good ten minutes or more --it's like the comedy version of Inglourious Basterds tavern scene -- and sets up only one bit of plot, which isn't even plot, but another joke that he pays off about fifteen minutes later. All of this, all these great, hilarious throw-away moments ("Petey, if you were a guy, he'd love you. Or if he were a bird you'd love him") that serve no purpose beyond being funny and establishing Cole's character, when the prevailing wisdom in narrative filmmaking is that if something doesn't serve the story, it has to go. Much of the first half of Modern Romance doesn't serve the story, and that's part of the reason it's so wonderful. Remember, Robert Cole is a film editor, so were he cutting Modern Romance he'd probably chop the hell out it.
Speaking of which, in the film's second half, after he's started back up with Mary, we see Robert at work, editing a "space picture" for David, a nervous and myopic director (a truly funny James L. Brooks). Robert and Jay are shown trying to add suspense to a deeply ridiculous bit of the film that features George Kennedy (as himself) shouting orders at his men, and, later, trying to add the kind of forceful sound effect ("Hawmp hawmp hawmp!") to a shot of Kennedy running down a hallway that David thinks will save the second half of the picture. Again, these scenes are long -- Brooks takes his time with them, in order to pull out all the subtle comedy from their situations, which he accomplishes through uncommonly sharp dialogue and easy, natural acting.
There are no comedies like this now, with this kind of loose structure, and the curiosity for the kind of side alleys represented by Robert's job in film editing. Brooks is often compared to Woody Allen, but even Allen -- the funny Allen -- at his best, which is considerable, is more concerned with the classic one-liner style of comedy that Allen saw perfected by his heroes, like Bob Hope. Brooks just let things be funny. His style was one of great patience and confidence.
I say "was", because following Defending Your Life, in 1991, Brooks seems to be floundering. His three subsequent films -- Mother, The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World -- have offered diminishing returns. They're not bad films, but they are significantly less funny than the astonishing, humbling work he did from 1979, when Real Life came out, through 1991. The funniest stuff in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is when Brooks is simply recycling his old (and brilliant) stand-up act. This is all disappointing to me, as a fan, and I can only speculate as to the reason for it, but I remember reading an interview with John Cleese where he said that since he began going to therapy, he's been much happier, but also less funny. However, he said, he'd rather be happy than funny. In an article about Brooks by Bill Zehme, written in conjunction with the release of Defending Your Life, Billy Crystal relates this anecdote:
Albert Brooks had bought Rob [Reiner] some books [for his birthday]. One was Stunts and Games. And Albert said, let me read you some of these things. Then he started making them up and reading them as if they were in the book: this one's called National Football League. Get thirty of your friends together, have them donate $5 million each to buy black people who can run and hit. Or Kennedy Assassination. Pretend you see smoke coming only from the Texas Book Depository, ignoring the man with the rifle in the tree standing next to you. I've probably never seen anyone funnier in my whole life. In fact, it was so funny that he had to leave immediately afterward. I felt sad that Albert couldn't be a person; he had to leave.
I can only hope that the waning quality of Albert Brooks's comedy is somehow related to what John Cleese says happened to him. But whatever the case, Albert Brooks has made three (four?) of the absolute best film comedies in the history of the medium. I say that with full confidence. If you haven't seen any of them, start with Modern Romance. Or Real Life, or Lost in America. Whatever. Just start.