A few months ago, while shopping for new headphones in a major chain store, it occurred to me how much more difficult the job of the retail sales clerk has become in the information age. One poor fellow did hesitantly approach me to see if I had any questions, but I barely looked up from my iPhone, which I was using to look up reviews of every single product in my price range. Just a few years ago, you had to do that sort of research in advance, and few people bothered; if a clerk seemed friendly and knowledgeable, chances were pretty good that your decision would get steered in a particular direction, in many cases by somebody working on commission. The art of the hard sell required a certain amount of ignorance and helplessness on the part of the consumer, coupled with a deep-seated fear of appearing stupid, vulgar, or cheap.
If future generations want to know how the process worked, and have a good laugh to boot, they need look no further than Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance, which features the hardest sell on record—a campaign of casual intimidation that makes Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross look like… well, like Alan Arkin in Glengarry Glen Ross. Made in 1981, when you actually had to drive all over town in order to comparison-shop, it stars Brooks as a film editor engaged in a toxic on/off relationship that’s just been switched off yet again. Still reeling from the breakup (which he initiated), he decides to embark upon an exciting new life, one component of which will be regular exercise in the form of jogging. Which means he needs some jogging shoes. A fairly simple transaction, in theory, but from the moment he enters “Sports Locker” (I hadn’t realized Foot Locker is that old—established 1974), he’s little more than a slab of red meat.
Brooks didn’t have to look far to find the perfect unflappable salesman—that’s his brother, Bob Einstein, best known for his character Super Dave Osborne. Einstein’s a funny guy in general, but I suspect that we’re also seeing an actual family dynamic playing out here, shrewdly employed—there might not be another actor on the planet off of whom Brooks’ questions and protestations would bounce so ineffectually. Though the characters themselves aren’t meant to be related, the clerk-customer dynamic at its most lethal can take on some of the contours of sibling rivalry. You can see it when Einstein sizes Brooks up—the question “What are you, about 5-11?” doesn’t technically need to be preceded by the observation “I’m 6-4,” and Brooks’ insistence that’s he an inch taller has the pathetic air of the frequently bullied. Mostly, though, you can see it in Einstein’s complete lack of affect. He can’t be bothered.
Nor need he be bothered, because Brooks’ insecurity does all the work. There’s a brilliant one-two punch in this scene, only slightly exaggerated, that sees Einstein first flattering Brooks by suggesting that he’s too serious and committed to settle for a box of cheaply made junk, then keeping his fish from wriggling off the hook by deciding aloud that his previous statement was an error in judgment: “Buy the box, you’ll like it.” In real life, that ploy is usually a tad subtler—“Hmm, well, maybe you should go with the Shoddymaster 100, that might be more your speed”—but it works like gangbusters (or used to, anyway). Nobody wants to feel like they’ve presented themselves in such a way as to appear suited only for bottom-of-the-line. Note that Brooks (as director) shoots the entire scene in two-shots, cutting to close-ups only for this exchange—it’s the decisive moment. Once Brooks caves, he’s forever lost, doomed to watch a tiny bottle of salt tablets get replaced by a bottle almost as big as his giant head.
(Incidentally, the $50 pair of shoes would cost about $120 today; two sets of designer sweats at $150 would now be more like $350. All told, he’s probably gonna walk out of the store $600-$700 lighter. But at least his dignity will be intact.)
Nowadays, of course, the hard sell has been replaced by the soft sell, which has become so soft that it’s often just part of the background. If this were a scene in a contemporary film, I’d probably start bitching at this point about its stealth function as a Nike ad. Most of it is staged in front of an entire wall of Nike products, with the swoosh logo visible in multiple spots; the shoes that Einstein sells Brooks, in a can’t-miss Nike box, are deemed “the best we got.” But had product placement reached that saturation level in 1981? Seems to me more likely that Brooks couldn’t afford to create a set for this three-minute scene and opted to shoot in an actual Foot Locker (or whatever), without bothering to redress the set except as specifically needed. But I could be wrong. Maybe Nike kicked in some dough. What’s really interesting is that I didn’t consciously notice the swoosh-a-rama when I first saw the film in the late ’80s, but it fairly leaps out at me today, to the point of being slightly distracting. Integrated advertisements have become like the cigarette burns that signify reel changes (now all but defunct, sorry Fight Club)—once they’ve been pointed out to you, you can’t not see ’em.
All the same, Brooks isn’t the person I’d go after first for that sin. And at least the scene itself is about sales tactics. What I’d really like to know is how you hypnotize a customer into accepting statements that make no sense whatsoever. Perhaps my favorite moment, just because it’s so absurd, is when Brooks says he’ll try the shoes on and Einstein tells him there’s no need. “They’re guaranteed to fit. If they don’t, bring ’em back.” Or, less succinctly: “Let’s keep moving toward the cash register. No reason to waste two minutes now when you can always drive potentially half an hour or more [this film is set in Los Angeles] to fix the problem later.” Likewise, when Brooks protests that he doesn’t need a wrist wallet, since the sweats have a zipper, Einstein merely replies, “It’s better to keep it on your wrist,” and Brooks is too beaten down at that point to even ask why. Indeed, the very premise of the wrist wallet gets justified by a single rhetorical, almost unanswerable question: “Are you gonna run broke?” If Brooks ever chooses to make a movie about political campaigning, it’s sure to be a doozy.