If it’s not love, what is it?
In Modern Romance, Albert Brooks suggests some modern answers. The contemporary comedy centers on Hollywood film editor Robert Cole (Brooks) whose romance with beautiful bank officer Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold) has reached a point of no return.
He loves her. He loves her not. He leaves her. He wants her back. He hopes she will be happy without him – so long as she is as miserable as he is without her.
“We’ve all been there,” says Brooks. “You make the final, irrevocable decision that it’s all over. Then you get home and think, ‘My god, what have I done?’”
Brooks, who directed Modern Romance from a screenplay he wrote with Monica Johnson, co-stars in the comedy with Kathryn Harrold. Produced by Andrew Scheinman and Martin Shafer, the Columbia Pictures release also stars Bruno Kirby and James L. Brooks, with cameo appearances by George Kennedy and Meadowlark Lemon.
For Brooks, the film marks a natural progression from his early introduction to comedy as the son of radio humorist Harry Einstein (“Parkyakarkus”) through his early years as a stand-up comedian in more than one hundred network television shows through his Saturday Night Live films to the biting wit of his first feature length film, Real Life.
Real Life was inspired, Brooks acknowledges, by the celebrated 12-part PBS television series, An American Family, in which William and Pat Loud of Santa Barbara, California, opened their doors, hearts and domestic crises to a TV camera crew, then pretended to live normally.
In contrast, Modern Romance grew out of Brooks’ personal experience.
“Two years ago, I was going out with a woman; the relationship had ended but I found myself driving around her house, over and over again,” he recalls. “I felt pinned to my car. I couldn’t do anything else but keep circling the house and I couldn’t even figure out why I was doing it.
“Finally, I thought, why don’t I pull over and write this down? It might make a good film.”
That incident does turn up in Brooks’ movie as one of several sequences which define the meaning of a “modern romance.”
But first, in a moment of candor he will later regret, over a mushroom omelette he will never eat, Robert Cole points out to Mary Harvard that theirs is a “no win” situation, even though he has no idea what a “win” situation is. He insists that they must go their separate ways.
He prides himself on having handled an awkward situation with maturity. That lasts for about a half hour.
He can’t work. He can’t sleep. He tries to change his life. He takes vitamins. He starts jogging. He starts dating. He’s still miserable.
Brooks sees the humor in Robert Cole’s plight, but feels compassion for him.
“There are no gags in the picture,” he says. “No zany comics. There are real people in real situations, carried to a logical – or illogical – extreme. If the outcome is funny, it’s because life itself is funny.”
Brooks’ casting characterizes the approach. Mary Harvard, played by Kathryn Harrold, is a sensible, sensitive young woman whose career in customer relations at Fidelity Savings and Loan gives her deep satisfaction.
She adores Robert’s passion, his craziness, his sudden thoughtful gestures. Sometimes, she cannot understand his compulsive jealousy. Yet, at the same time, it is part of the attraction which draws her to him.
The characters who surround the couple reflect Brooks’ approach to mixing actors with non-actors to achieve greater reality. For example, award-winning writer-producer James L. Brooks (no relation) portrays the director whose film Cole is editing. Brooks’ creative accomplishments, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and the movie, Starting Over, have won him Emmy, Peabody, Television Critics Circle, Humanitas, Golden Globe and Writers Guild awards. Modern Romance is his first significant acting role.
Basketball great Meadowlark Lemon, a relatively recent convert to the acting ranks, appears as himself in Modern Romance, while the more recognizable faces include Oscar winner George Kennedy and Bruno Kirby. Kennedy plays a dual role, as himself and as Zoron, the captain of the space ship in the movie-within-a-movie on which Cole is at work, while Kirby portrays Cole’s assistant editor and most supportive friend.
The story of Modern Romance would be “just as valid anywhere in America,” says Brooks. “I chose Los Angeles because I was born here and I know the city.”
Another factor, he adds, is that “Robert Cole is a film editor, an occupation which is largely centered in L.A.”
Speaking of that profession, Brooks points out, “It’s a loner kind of field, which appeals to someone with an introspective, analytical mind. What makes Cole so good at it is also what makes him uncomfortable in the social climate where Mary shines. As he points out, she lives day to day. He lives ‘day to forever.’”
Brooks observes that Modern Romance would have been a different story in times past.
“If Robert Cole and Mary Howard were their parents, they would have ‘courted’ for six months, gotten engaged, had a big wedding, then coped with their problems, successfully or not.
“Those were the ground rules. Maybe they weren’t good rules, but people lived by them. Now, the rules are changing. I’m not sure that there are any. We don’t know what a relationship is supposed to be anymore.”
Kathryn Harrold puts it another way.
“People are paranoid about making any kind of a commitment today. Most of my friends are running away from marriage, rather than toward it. They’re terrified.”
Robert’s relationship with Mary, his powerlessness within it, his preoccupation with love, his questions, his doubts, his anxieties, combine in a life replete with the difficulties of being male and over 30. The thought of settling down and making the proverbial life-long commitment is prominent in his mind. Yet he can’t help but wonder if a more perfect person is out there somewhere, waiting across a crowded room, perhaps.
Only by breaking up with Mary can he look for her, Brooks observes. But at the same time, he’s liable to lose the best relationship he’s ever had.
It is yet another dilemma…of modern romance.
From the Modern Romance press kit, Columbia Pictures, 1981