Lost In America
1985 / 1:85 / Street Date July 25, 2017
Starring: Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty
Cinematography: Eric Saarinen
Film Editor: David Finfer
Written by Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson
Produced by Marty Katz and Herb Nanas
Music: Arthur B. Rubinstein
Directed by Albert Brooks
According to a Newsweek cover story published that same year, 1984 was “The Year of the Yuppie”, referring to those ferociously materialistic young professionals whose numbers blossomed during the Reagan administration. The following year director Albert Brooks and his co-writer Monica Johnson delivered Lost In America, an acerbic road movie detailing what happens when one of those upwardly mobile hot-shots decides to get back to nature and “touch Indians”.
The result is one of the great American comedies, a mile-a-minute talk fest worthy of writer-directors like Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and in particular Preston Sturges, whose The Palm Beach Story told a similar tale about two young-marrieds who find themselves out of work and out on the street. To his credit Brooks’ film is a distinctly darker beast and acutely aware of the desperation that drives his characters.
Sturges’ 1942 comedy told the story of a altruistic dreamer preoccupied by his plan to build an airport in the sky. David Howard, the navel-gazing ad man at the center of Lost In America, is no less a dreamer except that he fantasizes only about buying more stuff, whether it’s a new car or a new tennis court. Welcome to 1985.
The volatile David, his linebacker’s frame barely constrained by a Brooks Brothers suit, is the epitome of an aggressively pro active idea man but he’s dedicated to his work in so far as it can buy him the promotion he covets. When his head hits the pillow, his mind is a non-stop rollercoaster of self doubt and petty resentments, a poisonous mix that would land most people in a rest home were it not for the soothing bedside manner of his doe-eyed wife Linda, beautiful, reassuring and clearly long suffering.
When the head of his firm informs him that a promotion is in fact not in the cards, David suffers a meltdown only a textbook narcissist could muster, serving up a savagely funny diatribe that effectively ends his career on the spot. Predicting that his boss will eventually be devoured by seals is only the cherry on top. So, in an impulsive gesture towards Easy Rider and its back-to-nature brethren, David and Linda abandon hearth and home and hit the road. It’s not long till the road hits back.
Their first stop is Las Vegas where we learn that Linda has been harboring her own brand of madness, an addiction to the roulette wheel that leads to an early morning gambling session wiping out their savings and possibly their marriage.
Hagerty’s out-of-control casino adventure is both terrifying and hilarious but it’s Brooks’ tirade about the terrors of homelessness played out against the towering Hoover Dam, that monument to American know-how, that stabs at the heart of that heartless decade and reveals the quaking terror fueling David’s relentless ambition: “We live here! Get used to the cement honey, this is our house!” It’s not for nothing that the film’s poster shows our two lovebirds with their heads buried in the sand.
Screenwriting 101 suggests that a film’s central character should experience a transformation over the course of the story. Yet at the finale of Lost In America, it seems David has undergone no character arc, he remains precisely the same jackass he was at the start of his journey. He does however experience an epiphany about himself, finally waking up to the notion that his materialistic ways are baked into his DNA. And so by the end of the film, having commuted to New York and ready to grovel, he has indeed succeeded in going back to nature. His nature.
With its ripe color scheme and giddy musical score (yes, that is a snippet of Ernest Gold’s Mad, Mad World music egging on the Winnebago as it chugs up mountainsides) Lost In America is clearly a film of its time (a sarcastic employment agent even name checks Easy Money and its star, the lowbrow prince of 80’s comedy, Rodney Dangerfield.) The film was photographed by Eric Saarinen (usually known for his gritty documentary style in Fillmore and Jimi Plays Berkeley) and Criterion has done their usual immaculate work in recreating a cinematographer’s vision in another stellar blu ray release.
To round out their presentation Criterion has produced several brand new interviews with cast, crew and friends including Julie Hagerty, Brooks’ long-time manager Herb Nanas and a chat with James L. Brooks (director of Brooks’ unforgettable turn in Broadcast News). James Brooks is, not surprisingly, astute about the mysterious ways in which Albert Brooks’ comedy works and is rightly effusive about Garry Marshall’s inspired cameo as a nonplussed casino boss.
The centerpiece is a half-hour conversation with Albert Brooks himself conducted by the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and all-around comedy maven Bob Weide. Rounding out the package is the theatrical trailer and a typically sharp and insightful essay by critic Scott Tobias about Lost In America in particular and Albert Brooks in general.