'You've heard of a no-win situation: Vietnam, this." So Albert Brooks informs his perplexed girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) in the first of several obsessive-compulsive break-ups and make-ups that form the structure of 1981's unfairly neglected Modern Romance. Although he has reductively been termed the "West Coast Woody Allen," Brooks (whose first two films are revived at Anthology this week) is in fact completely sui generis—a belligerent, cowardly, narcissistic, chronically unhappy Little Tramp looking for somebody (a woman, an audience) to love him. Even some admitted Brooks fans tend to think of the comic turned filmmaker primarily as a writer and not a director, to which I offer Modern Romance's astonishing six-minute-long tracking shot in which a quaalude-high Brooks stumbles through his Los Angeles apartment and several rambling midnight phone calls. Like Brooks's legendary stand-up routines, his films key into the audience's discomfort zone between the comedy of embarrassment and the embarrassment of comedy, between what's supposed to be funny on purpose and what's funny precisely because it isn't supposed to be at all. That's especially true of his 1979 debut feature, Real Life, an uncannily prescient harbinger of the reality-TV devolution, in which Brooks's megalomaniacal documentary filmmaker will stop at nothing to save his troubled portrait of an average American family. "Was David O. Selznick crazy?" he screams upon instigating one of moviedom's most thoroughly dada endings. Selznick? No. Brooks? Maybe, and God love him for it.
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