Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Making the Best of a No-Win Situation: Modern Romance

When Richard Pryor died a few months ago I asked myself a question I ask myself every few years: "Okay, who's the funniest person on the planet now?" (the last time I asked myself this question was when Bill Hicks died - Pryor reclaimed the title). So these days I vote for Albert Brooks.

I get excited when a new Albert Brooks film comes out. Not because I can't wait to see the film, but because this means he gets to go out and be hilarious and thought-provoking on talk shows and in interviews. I used to get excited about the movies too, but the movies themselves are not the main attraction anymore, to my dismay. The last one I saw in the theatres was Mother, which had moments in the dialogue but was undistinguished in terms of film-making. Following that came The Muse with Sharon Stone, which seemed too show-bizzy and in-jokey as far as the bits I saw on TV went. The clips from his latest, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, made it seem like a misfire, especially in comparison to the good game he was bringing on the promotional circuit, talking about making a comedy with the post 9/11 mindset as the subject matter (and not in the sarcastic Team America: World Police way, either)...maybe I'll catch up to it on video.

But he was on a roll for a while there. 1985's Lost in America is a wicked satire of the plight of the aging yuppie - Brooks' character petulantly walks away from the fast track over a perceived career slight and drags his wife on a trip across America in an RV to rediscover themselves; the 'happy ending' involves Brooks having to eat shit (not literally - you're thinking of Pink Flamingos). And before that (1981) he made, as far as I'm concerned, a masterpiece - Modern Romance, a film which is making its long-overdue DVD premiere next Tuesday, in a bare-bones edition with terrible artwork and no extras, which is odd considering how influential it actually is - maybe there's still some bad blood between Brooks and Columbia Pictures, the film's distributor (more on that later).

According to Brooks, no less a man named Stanley Kubrick came a-callin' after seeing the film, wondering how he did it, and hoping to strike up a friendship. Brooks had dared to make a comedy about psychotic, unhealthy jealousy, which takes place in a milieu of film-making which is depicted in a matter-of-fact, quotidian fashion (Brooks' character is a workaholic film editor). The film begins with Brooks dumping his on-again off-again girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) once again, then spending the next segment of the film "getting over her", with a centrepiece sequence, shot in two long takes, of Brooks moping around his apartment, doped up on quaaludes, congratulating himself on his decision, taking and making horrible phone calls and finally sinking into a state of hopeless desperation. By about the halfway point of the film, he is love-bombing his way back into his beloved's reluctant heart, promising that he can make it work this time. Kubrick told Brooks this was the film he always wanted to make. Kubrick was apparently a voracious movie-watcher in his seclusion and two movies he was said to have admired very much were Husbands and Wives and Modern Romance, which may (or may not) explain Eyes Wide Shut.

When Brooks finished the film and showed it to the studio execs at Columbia, they tried to talk him into adding a scene where his character goes to a psychiatrist, to help explain to prospective audiences what the hell was the matter with a man with a good job, a nice car and a hot girlfriend. "I don't know what his problem is," Brooks supposedly said to the executives. "You saw the movie; you tell me what his problem is!" Of course the movie bombed - but I think in this day and age we can appreciate what this film has to say. Thanks to the likes of Ricky Gervais and Larry David, wider audiences are more acclimatized to the prospect of laughing and cringing at the same time. But Brooks did a lot of the heavy lifting.

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