Modern Romance (1981) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Albert Brooks wrote and directed this would-be Tour de Farce, which plays like Woody Allen on Prozac -- slow motion neurosis.
A successful film editor (Brooks) breaks up with his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), obviously not for the first time, and then immediately begins obsessing about her. So much for the first 46 minutes of the film. After the long buildup, the two end up in bed together again, where we are treated to 4 minutes of mutual obsessing, then a fade to black for the sex scene. The next morning, she leaves for work, and he obsesses about her outfit, which he feels is too revealing, then goes through her drawers, obsessing about whom she might have called to run up phone charges. Brooks then goes to work, and obsesses over a cut in a film with the director for 12 minutes. The rest if the film is spent with Brooks obsessing with Kathryn Harrold.
There is no doubt that this is Albert Brooks's picture. He wrote. He directed. He starred. Everything else in the movie is a prop for him, including Kathryn Harrold. The film was competently photographed, but was plagued with a bad script, bad direction, and a bad lead performance. Of course, that only leaves one person to blame.
Note: Based on the comments at IMDb, Albert Brooks has a fan base which considers this a classic by him.
Whenever the barroom conversation turns to "best white stand-up comedian of all-time" (the racial qualifier to eliminate the obvious choice of Richard Pryor as best overall), I am always amazed that Albert Brooks is never mentioned any more. In the early 1970s, Brooks and Andy Kaufman re-invented stand-up in their own warped images, usually performing in character. Albert's characters were usually twisted versions of the familiar showbiz types seen each week on Ed Sullivan. There was "Dave and Danny" in which Albert was a ventriloquist whose lips moved while the dummy's stayed closed. Sometimes he was the world's worst impersonator. Sometimes Brooks was the talking mime, Albert Bruquet. He might also be The Great Alberto, the famous European elephant tamer, mysteriously sans elephants. Or perhaps he would be the government official in charge of the auditions for a new national anthem. One of my favorites was his performance as the world's greatest writer of children's songs, which he performed as if he were Cahn or Van Heusen, sitting at a piano, playing some romantic chords between reminiscences, a highball tinkling in his class as he provided mellow recollections of how he got his ideas. "And then my mom said to me, Albert, you can't just eat steak and potatoes ... eat your beans." That, of course, led to his classic tune "Eat Your Beans." The joke was enhanced by the fact that the grating, sing-song kiddie tunes completely broke the laid-back mood, not to mention the fact that they were all exactly the same melody!
Albert was, without a doubt, Johnny Carson's favorite comic. In the 30 months starting in December of 1970, Albert appeared on The Tonight Show 18 times. Come to think of it, he was on about as often as Johnny! The audience greeted his appearances with thunderous applause, and Johnny could not keep his composure during Albert's routines. There was just something about the chemistry between the two guys that rendered the Great Carsoni helpless. And I mean literally ... falling-from-his-chair helpless. Frankly, Albert had the same effect on me and on my ex-wife. We tuned in to his exact wavelength, and he had us wetting our pants with laughter. He was only 23 years old, and was practically Johnny Carson's personal comic. He was just a kid, and he had fully mastered stand-up comedy.
Albert's two appearances as the elephant tamer provide the best examples. On the first appearance, The Great Alberto explained that currency devaluations and customs regulations had prevented him from bringing his most famous elephant from Europe, and there was innate danger in working with an untrained elephant, but he could demonstrate his act with a smaller animal. He chose a frog. So there was Albert in his stereotypical circus costume, carrying a giant bullwhip, whipping the living daylights out of a tiny frog to make him jump through a hoop.
Albert came back on the show a few days later, as himself this time, because Johnny had received some complaints about cruelty to animals. Albert explained that the act was just silly, and they they didn't really whip the frog and that, in fact, they used two frogs so that neither would have to be under the hot TV lights for long.
"That's good to hear," said Johnny with gravitas, "so the frogs are unharmed?"
"No," responded Albert, "they both died."
Johnny shook his hand, thanked him, and Albert left without further explanation.
Albert finally bade farewell to live performance in a mock-tearful Durante routine where he walked off into the characteristic triple spotlight - with his pants around his ankles and his face covered with seltzer spray for the last time. We laughed, but we would have cried if we had known that he wasn't kidding about his retirement. Of course, we should have known, because in his previous appearance he had told five minutes of bad jokes (talk about an Andy Kaufman concept!), then broke down to the Carson audience and confessed that he was totally out of funny ideas. Turns out he was only half-kidding. Beneath his clowning, there was a very serious point. It is impossible to be a stand-up comic on network TV. In the old days of vaudeville and nightclubs, a good five minute routine could be performed for a year or more before it needed to be changed, but the life expectancy of a five minute routine on Tonight was about forty days for Albert, by which time he had to have a completely new five-minute routine ready. If you look at it that way, Albert's first 18 Tonight appearances used up 18 years or more of material by the standards of the old nightclub or vaudeville days.
Sure, he was turning his burn-out into a routine of its own, but that can only be milked so long, and the fact is that he really was burnt-out on live comedy. He moved on to filmmaking, and never looked back. He had gotten a taste of film success by creating a brilliant short called "The Famous Comedians School," which was adapted from an article he had written for Esquire. It seemed to demonstrate that he had unlimited promise as a comedic filmmaker.
Only one problem: he never actually made any great comedy films. He maxed out at "competent." We are still waiting for all that promise to be fulfilled. The lad who mastered stand-up in a few months is still attempting to master the art of filmed comedy, and it has now been more than 30 years since his "retirement" from stand-up. In those 30 years, he's never made a film rated as high as 7.5 at IMDb; he's never made a film which had any substantial box office, and none of his own films have been nominated for any Oscars or Golden Globes. (He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in Broadcast News, which is not his own film.)
Andy Kaufman assured his comedic immortality by moving from stand-up to his wrestling career, thence to his character on Taxi, and thence to an early death which assured him legendary status. Brooks just kept turning out mediocre movies that basically consisted entirely of him performing whiny monologues in which he rambled on and on with neurotic kvetching, appealing only to his hard-core fan base. Nothing in his filmmaking career, neither among his full-length films nor the short films he made for SNL, ever captured the magic and energy of his stand-up comedy, except for that very first "Comedy School" film which had shown so much promise.
So it goes.
Mozart was born to compose and perform, not to play polo. Albert Brooks was born to perform live, playing characters, and not to write and star in movies.
Tuna mentions in his review that Albert had a large and loyal fan base, and I can certainly attest to that. I was probably Albert's biggest fan at one time. And yet I can find nothing very positive to say about any of his movies. Tuna's grade of D may sound controversial when you consider than many people praise this film, but it is the correct score. If ever anyone was in the target market for Albert's comedy, it is I. And yet I find this film to be monotonous and completely unfunny except for the film-within-a-film starring George Kennedy, which provides a few small laughs. Apart from that, Modern Romance is really just Albert talking to the audience for an hour and a half in the same whiny voice. He's Woody Allen without the good jokes and without the fully-developed secondary characters.
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