During the screening of Defending Your Life, I kept hearing a scratchy yet high-pitched voice piping up from the row behind mine: “This is hilarious!” “They could never make this today!” “Oh, wow, did they really say that?” “This is hilarous!” “There’s so many nuances!” I kept turning toward the source of these exclamations, but could only see the curve of obesity behind me. Assuming the chatterer to be a slow or insane middle-aged woman, I thought, “Will somebody please wheel her out of here?” When the house lights came up, I realized I’d been hearing the enthusiasms not of an organically damaged matron but of a twelve-year-old boy. I instantly forgave him everything. Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me.
The more revival cinema I attend, the more I find it increasingly difficult to disagree with this sort of expressed joy. Something just feels so viscerally delightful about sitting down in a theater and watching an actual film print of movies from other times, even times not too terribly far in the past. Modern Romance and Defending Your Life came out in 1981 and 1991, respectively, meaning I had yet to be born during the earlier film’s theatrical run and remained too young to care during the later film’s. Even my dad, a longtime Albert Brooks fan, didn’t catch these two entries in the canon As They Were Meant to Be Seen. For me, it always feels like time travel. For those few hours inside the Egyptian, it could well have been twenty or thirty years ago — assuming everyone had their cellphones properly stowed.
That loud kid didn’t stick around for Modern Romance, and what a shame. That got the crowd laughing even harder and longer than did Defending Your Life, and in the old the-negative-warehouse-is-burning-down thought experiment, it’s the one I’d save. In Defending Your Life, Brooks plays a dead ad man who must justify his actions in life to a couple of judges in a Los Angeles-like version of purgatory. He puts a bunch of solid ideas into the story, no doubt — I especially like how the judges evaluate not his morality but his intelligence, which, by their definition, comes down to a kind of unflinching bravado — but the ending both gets him the girl and ties every loose end at the last possible minute as (so my memory dictates) the orchestral swell rises.
Modern Romance, though; even Kubrick had to give this one its props. While neither it nor Defending Your Life (but especially not Defending Your Life) have quite as high a time with the cinematic form as Lost in America does, Brooks still makes a lot of bold moves within it. He strings everything along this line: his character, a film editor named Robert Cole, dumps his girlfriend. But then, feeling (Quaalude-intensified) regrets, he proceeds to spend the rest of the movie getting her back and driving her away again, oscillating between rapture, jealousy (disapproving of the dress she wears out: "There are people who only rape. That's all they do!"), panic, despair, and cutting work on shambolic sci-fi picture starring George Kennedy. In telling this simple tale, Brooks makes choices that only reveal just how daring they are upon reflection. This movie exists apart from the rules of romantic comedies. It doesn’t rebuke those rules directly; it just seems only vaguely aware of them.
Modern Romance really focuses not on romance, or even modernity, but on the debilitating neuroses of the standard Albert Brooks protagonist. Not for nothing has the long L.A.-based Brooks so often received the Woody Allen West tag, but his own neurosis feels different, and he gives it another sort of cinematic expression altogether. I kept having Sullivan’s Travels moments throughout the screening, cracking up at Brooks’ psychological pratfalls amid the laughter feedback loop of everyone else in the theater cracking up as well. Sharp-edged humor, I realize, makes an ideal companion to experimentation, adventurousness, inventiveness, whatever you want to call it. I found that Jean-Philippe Toussaint knows this when I wrote a primer on him. And Gabriel Josipovici and Lee Rourke show in interviews that they know it better than I do. But still!
But however severe his twitchy inability to function in humanity — and I thank my lucky stars I haven’t come down with an equivalent of the terrified Baby Boomer sexual flightiness diagnosed by Brooks and many others — I do feel a certain admiration for Robert Cole. Even knowing how the screenplay dooms him, I couldn’t help thinking, watching him walk from his house to his Porsche to edit that crappy George Kennedy movie, “Damn, even deeply neurotic, this guy is actually a guy. With a house. And a car. And a movie to edit. And he’s just going from one of those things to the other to do that third thing. By his own volition!” But maybe this says more about my own growing psychodramas about feeling a crushing lack of autonomy than about anything else.
In conclusion: there’s so many nuances!