Albert Brooks' charming films are some of the funniest films of the last twenty years. He's one of the few modern comedian-actors who directs himself and creates great movies. Brooks' screen persona of a spoiled, neurotic urban Yuppie is acceptable to mid-America because he's the first to ridicule himself. Also, the level of his wit is up there with Woody Allen, and often seems less forced.
Each of Brooks' directed movies has a strong central theme anyone can relate to. Modern Romance sounds obvious until you see how tangled Brooks can make a simple relationship. Real Life was one of the first and best reflexive looks at a media society that has forgotten the meaning of privacy. And Defending Your Life redefined personal courage for the affluent '80s in a way that the Yups were losing hold of. Lost in America is about pampered, selfish urban professionals who are too self-obsessed to realize how damned lucky they are, as they ponder the leather option in that just-around-the-corner Mercedes. But it's not some scathing critique: Brooks' characters are always humans like you or me who just need their eyes opened for a full appreciation of their lives.
Neurotic advertising man David Howard (Albert Brooks) has sold his house in anticipation of a big career move at his Los Angeles Agency. He's also driving his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) half-nuts with his incessant second-guessing and insecure obsessions. When the promotion meeting turns out to be a sideways shift to the New York office, David flips out, insults his boss, and gets himself escorted from the building by security. Making a rash decision to 'drop out' like the fantasy in the movie Easy Rider, David gets Linda to quit her job too. They head for Las Vegas in a large motor home, to renew their marriage vows and sleep under the stars. But a nice hotel sounds like a better plan for the exhausted couple, so they stay the night on the Vegas Strip. When David wakes up, he discovers that Linda has spent half the night down at the roulette wheel ...
Lost in America would be a nightmare film if it were not for the mirth provided by Albert Brooks. His characterizations, writing and pacing are right-on; and his direction focuses on the pertinent situations of his comedy without throwing in unnecessary gags or goosing the audience for laughs. Brooks' forte is the basic comedic monologue (usually a tirade of self-pitying wit), and neurotic encounters with an outside world that doesn't seem to be as self-tortured as he is. Money, status, security and success are what David Howard has worshipped for fifteen years; as far as he's concerned he's fulfilled his part of the personal bargain and now it's time for the reward. A born chicken-counter, he's already sold his house and picked out the new car. The reason he goes ape when he doesn't get what he's decided he deserves, is that he's identified himself with success in a business world that doesn't recognize 'personal bargains.'
In Edgar Ulmer's Detour, Al Roberts' trip across America in search of his dream turns into a film noir disaster. Roberts is interesting is not that some implacable fate trips him up, but his own self-image as a Loser. Giuletta Masina in The Nights of Cabiria seeks to change her life, but is instead cheated of her life savings. The magic comes when she realizes that she's still her same happy self, and that it doesn't matter, life will go on. Not so for Lost in America's David Howard. When an unforeseen turn of events robs David and Linda of their 'nest egg,' leaving them without enough gasoline to cross a state, let alone see America, they get an urgent lesson in reality 101. Trying to find work in a small town sets the stage for some hilarious but absolutely right-on encounters that show them the way to salvation. The real Americans they encounter in the real America, would all give their souls for a chance at what David has thrown away.
Lost in America's lesson is that modern urban society makes us status-conscious, artificial, and shallow, but that there are lots of worse things to be and worse situations to find oneself in. When David is back in his element again, slugging away with his cheerfully obnoxious business persona, both we and he know that's where he belongs. Albert Brooks doesn't insist that you see his comedies as meaningful, and they're certainly just as hilarious without any of this thinking... but it puts him far ahead of the game, up there with the classic comedies.
Most of the set pieces in the film are inspired, and a couple of them are simply transcendent. The best is probably David's pitiful attempt to talk a casino executive (Garry Marshall) into giving back the money they've lost at his roulette wheel. David's sorry belief that his ad-man patter can coax money from this man is funny, almost painfully so.
Julie Hagerty makes an excellent foil for Brooks, as undemonstrative and thoughtful as he is brash and exaggerated. She makes Linda Howard the kind of person who's genuinely surprised by her own susceptibility to the gambling bug, and yet we know she isn't damaged by her husband's tirade of sarcasm when her 'little mistake' turns into a catastrophe. In most of Brooks' stories he doesn't link up well with females, the ending of Defending Your Life being the only slightly strained part of that film. David and Linda are a good couple. Woody Allen basically believes relationships are impossible and even his sweetest movies reflect this cynicism. Neil Simon conceives of characters as collections of kooky quirks, and all any Simon relationship needs to succeed is for people to to get beyond one another's idiosyncrasies. All three men write funny movies, but I like Brooks' philosophy the best. It takes into account the idea that we can be smart enough to understand at least part of our own contradictory natures. Even if we can't change everything about our lives, we can be happier by improving our attitudes.
Warner's DVD of Lost in America is clean and handsome, beautifully transferred in bright 16:9. The track is simply dialogue about 90% of the time, but is also free of flaws. The sum total of added value extras is one trailer. Insanely, the movie is rated 'R'. To the best of my memory, Brooks says the F word twice or three times in anger... giving this positive, affirming movie an R? .... sheesh.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lost in America rates:
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: April 10, 2001