Synopsis: Stalled in his company’s pecking order, ad man David Howard (Albert Brooks) failed to land the Senior VP slot he wanted. He quits, convinces wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) to do the same, sells their house and stocks and buys a Winnebago to roam the USA. Though they feel they’re Easy Riders, they’re actually Born to Be Mild. With their $145,000 nest egg tucked reassuringly within reach, they make their first stop: Las Vegas.
Goodbye, nest egg. Greetings, hilarity. In Lost In America, director/co-writer Brooks (The Muse, Mother, Defending Your Life) memorably bonds with Hagerty (Airplane!, What About Bob?) as a couple spinning along on wheels of misfortune. Their comic plight speaks to anyone who’s ever dreamed of chucking it all.
Lost in America 7.0
Employment Agent: “You couldn’t change your life on a hundred thousand a year?”
Have you ever wanted to quit your job? Sure you have. Have you ever wanted to quit your job, sell everything and then skip town? Well, David and Linda Howard did it. Inspired by ‘Easy Rider’, they had big dreams of living on the road, traveling across America and simply living off of their savings.
Unfortunately for them, it didn’t turn out quite as they had planned.
Albert Brooks’ second feature film, ‘Lost in America’, focuses on an ambitious, career-minded man and his patient wife, who have been working steadfastly for years to make it big. The moment that it doesn’t go as planned, however, they realize that they’d long ago buried their youthful ideals – which, amusingly enough, given the middle-class suburban couple that they are, are deeply rooted in the afire-mentioned iconic road movie.
Suddenly nostalgic, and desperately seeking a way out of their current situation, they decide to reclaim these lost years. Of course, a teenager’s perspective is different from an adult’s, especially a careerist’s, so it’s easy to imagine how absurdly different their take on a freewheeling lifestyle might be; nothing can possibly be more of a contradiction than driving around in a hulking Winnebago to the tune of “Born to Be Wild”!
And that’s the thing I like the most about ‘Lost in America’, and about a lot of Brooks’ films: their subtly absurdist take on modern life, as well as the ironic distance between the aspirations that their characters espouse openly and the sad truth(s) that their actions bring to the fore. Of course, having said this, it can also be a frustrating experience, in that what we’re frequently watching are people in contradiction with themselves, extremely flawed, human.
I also adored seeing the couple getting super excited about the freedom that they were seeing stretching before them. Even though it seemed naïve, like wishful thinking, it was infectious; their jubilation was not unlike that of kids being let out school for the summer, with nothing but carefree days ahead of them. A part of me almost would want to experience that someday. Almost… because I doubt that any amount of money would allow me that sense of release. Anyway, it was quite a glorious sight.
The thing I like the least about ‘Lost in America’ is that it could have followed that road throughout its journey, providing insight into North American attitudes and behaviours – especially, about a generation that felt lost after the Peace and Love movement dissipated, idyllic hopes and dreams cast aside for a shiny new modèle du jour. Unfortunately, Brooks chose to crash the party by bringing to it some pretty disturbing interpersonal conflicts a third of the way in.
Seeing all of their dreams annihilated overnight, I could understand David’s anger, his reaction; it made sense to be so upset. However, going down this cinematic path totally nullified all of the humour: there is truly no way that one can laugh at the emotional abuse David puts Linda through in these scenes. It’s entirely understandable, given the context (not because it’s acceptable, but because of all the pressure and stress he must have felt), but it’s probably too much of a shake-up in what should have remained light fare.
It doesn’t help that Julie Hagerty naturally appears emotionally and physically brittle; even though the character is to blame for some of what befalls them, Hagerty makes Linda seem far too vulnerable for us to tolerate David’s outbursts. This makes him appear abusive to such an extent that there is pretty much no redemption for him; no matter what he does or says later, he will always be remembered as a barking dog that is frothing at the mouth, chomping away uncontrollably.
That miscasting aside, a few outstanding choices were made along the way. For instance, the guy playing David’s boss is SO unbelievably perfect for the part, playing it authoritative, confident, no-nonsense, knowing what to say and how to say it. Similarly, the casino manager was perfectly cast. What a character! This guy had no idea what Brooks was talking about, but patiently humoured him, having no intention of playing along. What a performance. And what brilliant casting indeed.
I mostly enjoyed the first third of the film, the one that shows Brooks completely self-absorbed, so focused on his career ambitions that he can’t see clearly, can’t sleep at night, makes bad decisions and is making his spouse unhappy in the process. There was a lot of subtle humour peppered throughout and I enjoyed that quite a lot; there’s simply something quite lovely about finding and highlighting the humour in everyday situations, because there’s a lot to laugh at all the time. We’re silly creatures, we humans, so it’s truly not necessary to contrive humourous situations.
I especially enjoyed the opening sequence, which showed the Howards’ home to the sounds of a radio interview with film critic Rex Reed explaining his preference when watching movies, and showing just how disconnected reviewers can be from the experience, taking away the very point of the movies that they’re reviewing. Was this a barb that Brooks was throwing due to his own experiences in filmmaking, or was it intended as a metaphor for the whole movie? Unknown, but in and of itself and it was delicious.
By the time that we follow the Howards to a motor-home park, in the last third of the picture, the reality of their new lives starts to set in. There is still some humour tossed about, but the situation is dour enough that it’s difficult to even chuckle; personally, I find it challenging to laugh at another’s misery or unhappiness (some exceptions noted, of course ).
Then there’s the ending, which may be considered slightly cynical, but that I’m sure some would find realistic, true-to-life. Personally, I think that it was the right way to close the film, given the characters’ ideals; a reboot seems fitting enough in my mind. Plus which it also provided for some amusing final moments. And it gave direction anew to a film that, quite like its protagonists, seemed to have lost its way.
Anyway, for those of you who feel inspired by the Howards’ tale, despite all that befalls them, or for those of you who actually are lost in America, and are looking for some form of escape, here are a few final words of advice, courtesy of the filmmakers:
“To those few that have the courage to drop out and find themselves, may God be with you and take you through Utah, avoiding Nevada completely.”