Review: Modern Romance

Blu-ray: Modern Romance (1981)

“You’ve never heard of an unwinnable situation? Vietnam? This?”

It is unsurprising in a post Generation X world filled with modern anxieties that sardonic, dry wit is an expected reaction to the world around us. Laughing in a sarcastic tone at our daily misfortunes is how many of us fool ourselves into believing we have the upper hand in all that life throws us. A coping mechanism of sorts in convincing yourself that the pain laughs with you rather than at you. In this observation, it is further unsurprising that there is a market for comedy in this philosophy. You only have to look so far to find sardonic icons such as Woody Allen, Daria, Mitchell and Webb and so on. Thanks to a recent viewing of Albert Brooks’ stellar performance and direction I can add Modern Romance’s Bob Cole to that list.

Modern Romance is the story of full-time bachelor and man-child, Robert Cole and just one of his many break-ups with his on-again off-again girlfriend, Mary. Bob seemingly lives the high life in his modern apartment and decent wage but is laboured by insecurities that dictate his life and personality. A notable way in which this is shown is his compulsion to change anything about his situation in a moment’s notice. He turns on music just to turn it off again. He says he’ll work late only to go home 5 minutes later. He buys running equipment to never use it after one work out session. It’s a character flaw that is also reflected in his occupation, film editor, as a strength. Changing his mind at a moment’s notice is something he does so well, he’s even paid to do it. But it’s a problem that’s effecting his relationship with Mary. Opening in the midst of one of their breakups, the film is set over the course of a few days, showing the audience his typical coping process whenever he and Mary split and eventually reunite.

The film is centred completely around Bob, to the point where I think it’s fair to say that there only a handful of frames where he is actually not present on screen. Brooks’ has outdone himself in portraying a character who is equal parts shallow and deep. His snarky attitude and constant dry wit thinly veil his insecurities and completely selfish and idiotic actions. He’s wrote and performed however in such a way that makes him endearing, funny and likable. There is a fine line between cynicism and whining. A line which Modern Romance basically stands on with Bob but never crosses it.

It could very well be a detriment to the film when considering how strongly the Bob-centric plot effects the surrounding characters in their own development, and I do concur to an extent. It is a shame to see such interesting characters squandered to just a few minutes of screen time (for instance the borderline arrogant but dim director Bob works under and even Mary to some degree), but it is in service to the film’s narrative. Bob is a selfish character, and this is reflective in his reactions to the supporting characters. Their lives go on outside of our observation because we are observing Bob and deep-down Bob doesn’t care, even about himself to some level. The sacrifices made to the other characters dimensions are in service of showing Bob’s own depressive tendencies and how these tendencies lead to him making the same mistakes again and again. Bob doesn’t have so much of an arc as much as he does a series of cycles, a point made by the excellent punchline of the films final moments. I won’t spoil it here of course, but it’s makes clear the point of the rut Bob has found himself regarding his relationship with Mary.

Modern Romance is a fantastically dry character study of the successful man-child as an archetype in film. Where romance films in the same vein of Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally  show us hostility and the inner turmoil expected in 20th-21stcentury love, Modern Romance decides to show the inner turmoil specifically of the man. A hilarious hidden gem from the golden age of romcoms, this is definitely one to check out, especially for the soppy cynic wearing their heart on their sleeve.

A strong recommendation for this one.

• High Definition remaster
• Original mono audio
• New and exclusive audio commentary with critic and film historian Nick Pinkerton
Movie Love with Eric Saarinen (2018, 15 mins): the celebrated cinematographer and director discusses his work with Albert Brooks
• Theatrical trailer
• Image gallery: publicity stills and promotional material
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition exclusive 28-page booklet with a new essay by Isabel Stevens, extracts from interviews with Albert Brooks on Modern Romance, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
• World premiere on Blu-ray
• Limited Edition of 3,000 copies

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Review by Joel from a disc kindly supplied by Powerhouse Films.