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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Albert Brooks broke new ground in comedy by drawing out scenes (and laughs)

Illustration for article titled Albert Brooks broke new ground in comedy by drawing out scenes (and laughs)

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Hate Valentine’s Day? We’ve lined up a week of holiday counter-programming, the best break-up movies and anti-love stories available.

Modern Romance (1981)

Albert Brooks was the last major innovator of American movie comedy, developing a style that used off-rhythms, open compositions, and long stretches of non-humorous space to build a comic set piece. There’s little wit in Brooks’ best work, few clearly identifiable punchlines, and even less snappiness. His sharply constructed comedy—the model for slow-build descendants like Louis C.K.’s Louie—becomes funny through the accumulation of details and line deliveries.


Brooks’ second feature, Modern Romance, is his best—a Los Angeles-set comedy about the relationship between a B-movie editor and his on-and-off girlfriend. A master class in controlled pacing (it was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films, and an acknowledged influence on Eyes Wide Shut), it consists mostly of lengthy scenes in which tension and social awkwardness build until they become both unbearable and deeply funny. (Unsurprisingly, considering the movie’s focus on careful construction, it features two standout scenes that revolve around characters explaining film technique—one set in an editing room, the other in a Foley studio.) The nearly 10 minute sequence of Robert (Brooks) wandering around his apartment after taking Quaaludes, talking out loud (“God, music is the doctor of the soul… God, Beethoven was an amazing guy…”), is exemplary of Brooks’ approach to comedy. The performance—the most finely tuned depiction of a bad drug experience ever committed to film—is natural and understated, which only makes Robert’s mood swings and faux-profound pronouncements more cringe inducing.

Throughout, the movie’s tone is intensely pessimistic, but never cynical. Beginning with the couple’s break up, Brooks follows Robert as he attempts to restart his single life, continually drifting back to Mary (Kathryn Harrold), only to push her away with his jealousy and neuroticism. The overwhelming impression of disappointment is underscored by the ending, which seems to suggest that life and romance—like the movie itself—are nothing but a series of protracted mistakes. The question is how much you’re willing to endure.

Availability: Modern Romance is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to purchase through the major digital services.

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