A Time To Break Up
by LAUREN BANS
It's hard out there for a defender of romantic comedies. Over the last few years rom coms have ceaselessly lived up to their reputation for spoon-feeding the fairer sex and their reluctant male companions harmless, predictable drivel. Katherine Heigl falling into Jon Bon Jovi’s arms after one or two missed text messages? Mind-blowing. Like mild cheese on a Ritz cracker.
Which is why you should disregard the frequent categorization of Albert Brooks’ low-lying film 1981 Modern Romance as a romantic comedy. It is, but it’s not simply the mental equivalent of a basket of beribboned puppies.
Brooks directs himself as an utterly unlikeable film editor, the anthropomorphic intersection of narcissism and neurosis. Think Woody Allen meets Napoleon, but tall. The first 20 minutes of the film contains what is arguably the best break up in movie history: Brooks’ character Robert takes his long-suffering girlfriend, Mary (played by the great Kathryn Harrold) to a diner and begins to unweave their relationship like only a true crackpot can.
Mary orders a chef salad and Robert a “mushroom omelette, very little butter, with whole wheat toast, dry, and butter on the side.” (Which was later totally swagger-jacked by When Harry Met Sally.)
Robert begins before the food arrives: “I don't feel real good lately and I'm trying to figure out what it is and I think it's probably us." Then he backtracks and starts up again until Mary finally runs out yelling, “Don’t call me again like last time!”
In a conventional rom-com, the diner scene would be the narrative gunshot that starts Mary off to find her true soulmate.
But instead it cuts to a denial-rich Robert at home, two quaaludes downed, turning off the light only to proclaim ten seconds later “I can’t sleep!”, falling off the bed, turning on a terrible remix of Beethoven’s 5th and slurring “Music is the healer of the soul!” - like a preexisting spoof of the emo-puddle John Cusack plays in High Fidelity - before stumbling into the wall. He makes his way painfully to the couch and flips open his Rolodex, where he utters the simultaneously hilarious and devastating line: “Just look how many friends I have!”
The entire movie follows the pattern outlined in the very first scene - Robert and Mary break up. They get back together. They break up again. Robert swings like a pendulum, and Mary invariably takes it.
At some point it becomes clear this is the great romance of the movie. It doesn’t get better. It’s dark, undoubtedly abusive, and painfully funny. If you want easily swallowed, rent a Meg Ryan flick. But remember, in real life she’s divorced with lips the size of hot dog buns.
Lauren Bans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing at GQ here.
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