When Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) arranged this dinner at a restaurant with his girlfriend Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), he had plans for the evening - but not really plans which involved her. He has asked her out to break up with him, and when he begins to state his case for it even before the food has arrived she rolls her eyes and asks him not to start all this again, but he cannot stop himself, comparing their relationship to a lose-lose situation like the Vietnam War. Despite this, he is still surprised when she walks out after he makes his feelings plain...
And then spends the rest of the movie trying to win her back in perhaps the most typical of Albert Brooks' comedies. After he had provided his scene-stealing turn in Drive, playing way against type as a brutally murderous gangster, some were encouraged to check out his other, more personal films as he was primarily known as a comedy actor, and had been since making a name for himself in the United States with his frequently bizarre short efforts on Saturday Night Live. From there it was a short step to features, making his prescient reality television spoof Real Life, but it was Modern Romance, also written with frequent creative partner Monica Johnson, which confirmed him as a movie star.
He was never going to topple the likes of Jack Nicholson or Gene Hackman from the upper echelons of the movie star pantheon, but he did gather a following though as his films became slicker, they began to smooth off the spikier edges that were found here - funnily enough his biggest role came as the hapless newsreader in Broadcast News, whose director James L. Brooks (no relation) appears in this. So if you wanted to get to the essence of Albert Brooks' humour, here was a very good place to start, as here was a character he could get his teeth into: basically a borderline maniac, who has been turned to his obsessive madness because of the love of a good woman.
In a way, they deserve each other, because by and by Mary is won over for the umpteenth time by Robert's charms, which amount to him pleading to take him back in frankly pathetic terms. Before that he tries to cope with the mistake he has made, firstly by taking a couple of quaaludes that his colleague Jay (Bruno Kirby) has given him to calm him down, which leads to an amusing sequence where he lolls around his house inebriated, putting on a song from his self-proclaimed great album collection, then deciding he doesn't actually like A Fifth of Beethoven, then phoning up a woman for a date in spite of not remembering who she is, then making up his mind to drive over to Mary's before falling asleep in the car before he's even set off.
Draining the car battery by leaving the radio on all night in the process. It's safe to say Brooks was not interested in portraying a flattering version of himself on the screen, and this willingness to look a particular kind of narcissistically foolish offered most of the chuckles. It wasn't all at the expense of his love life, or lack of it, as Robert's job as a film editor is mined for laughs as well. He's currently working on a cheapo sci-fi epic, and some acute observations about how seriously even the least impressive movies are taken by their creators make for some of the funniest parts of the picture, with the scene where they're trying to come up with the right sound of footsteps for a shot of George Kennedy running down a corridor one of the most hilarious sequences in Brooks' canon. But it's the maddening behaviour of Robert we take away, as he's so possessive that if you changed the angle of perception this could easily be a scary stalker yarn, with his lack of self awareness either very funny or absolutely infuriating depending on your mood.