Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) slaves over a scene from a cheesy science fiction joint, in which George Kennedy hammily demands codes to save his flailing spaceship. The director, David (James L. Brooks, resembling Leonard Maltin), feels as if something crucial is missing from the scene, tasking his editing crew to find it. He is none too pleased to discover Cole has cut his favorite line (“You don’t know anything!”) in favor of subtle foreshadowing. The original cut had Kennedy demanding the codes, with a fellow crewmember chiming in he may know of some. Seeing as how it’s revealed an hour later the two were in cahoots, Robert found it wiser to trim the dialogue and simply show a shot of the crewmember sheepishly reacting. The film now has a red herring that can be attributed to the crewmember’s knowledge or tossed aside as a sheepish reaction depending on the final cut. It ingeniously plays with the audience’s expectations. David doesn’t think so, as it leaves his favorite exchange on the cutting room floor. The director and editor awkwardly clash before feebly agreeing to disagree and come back to it later.
This one scene perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film! It showcases the quaint comedy, including building to one scenario in which the editors must foley in heavier footsteps for George Kennedy’s sprint. This results in a hysterical moment of splicing in a running sound bite from “The Incredible Hulk,” which, just like the relationship between director and editor, is awkwardly hilarious! It also acts as insight into Robert Cole’s psyche, highlighting his controlling ways and emotional manipulation. He is not a cruel man, but a determined one that can’t see the fault in some of his decisions. It also coyly represents the importance of editing; how it can mess with one’s emotions by concealing key elements. How Cole edits the space opera is similar to how David Finfer edits this film.
As the film opens, we see Cole break up with his girlfriend, Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). We know just by the tone of her voice that this isn’t the first time and most likely won’t be the last. That is evident in the fact that Robert spends the next two days pining over her. He fights (and loses) the urge to call her and drives around her block fighting (and losing) the urge to knock on her door. He finds distraction in shopping, being tricked by a shady sporting goods salesman (Bob Einstein) into buying the most expensive of running apparel to mend his broken heart. His assistant editor, Jay (Bruno Kirby), gifts him Quaaludes to ease his nerves, which only results in him setting up a date with a woman he has no recollection of. He picks the gal up, drives her around the block, then drops her back off at her place; too heartbroken to move on just yet. I’ve had worse first dates.
Again, the editing is on point, subtly hinting at Cole’s neuroticism. I perceived his purchasing of gifts to win back Mary’s heart to be a mere side effect of heartache. In actuality, it’s indicative of his instigation of others. It is not a Machiavellian trait, seeing as how he means no harm. He’s simply a flawed man who believes showering others with gifts and praises will win them over. He fails to see the harm of it in the long haul, such as how it’ll tarnish David’s directorial vision and cripple his relationship with Mary. The two do indeed get back together to expected rocky results.
A friend of mine was afraid to admit that he seen a lot of himself in Robert Cole. I say fear not as the character is inherently relatable; it’s what makes the film so endearing. Oh sure, nobody wants to see themselves as the jealous neurotic. However, seeing similarities between yourself and Robert isn’t emblematic of one’s overall demeanor. All Brooks is doing is taking the familiar downfalls of the human mind and cranking them up to eleven. We’ve all struggled with trust issues and relied on an emotional quirk to cope with our issues .For Robert, he falls back on his sarcasm, much in the same way that I do. It exudes charm and makes him personable, but also gets him into trouble (again, as it does for me). His characteristics, so familiar of our own, are ratcheted up to enhance the drama and act as a cautionary tale on jealousy. The raw honesty in Brooks’ performance, writing, and direction is admirable.
The editing becomes a character in and of itself. It’s so complementary of Cole’s characteristics that it almost feels like an extension of him. Certain scenes linger for longer than they should, but that’s actually a positive. It’s evocative of Robert’s inability to move on, stunting himself in an emotional stupor. It hoodwinks the audience into a false sense of security, but, just like with Robert, does so without malice.
It’s a funny thing about the editing. Reorganize the scenes and implant the film with an eerie score and “Modern Romance” winds up as a suspenseful thriller about a jealous ex. Instead, it is a brutally honest and coyly amusing dissection of relationships. The film is all the better for it!
Final Rating: A