By Jessica Baxter.
It’s been over 30 years since Albert Brooks unleashed his on-point satire about the mental unraveling of dissatisfied yuppies in Regan-era America. And while Easy Rider (1969) the film that inspires them, is even further in the rearview today than it was in 1985, the sentiments of ignorance, delusion, and privilege remain tragically relevant in what will one day be known as (barf) Trump-era America. Fortunately, because it’s an Albert Brooks film, these hard truths are wrapped up in a hilarious package, now available as part of the Criterion collection.
After being passed over for a promotion at his high-paying advertising job, David (Brooks) urges his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty) to quit her job and sell everything they own to “drop out of society” and tour the county in a decked-out Winnebago. The key to making this plan work is his oft-referenced “nest egg” – the liquidated lump sum of their assets that is meant to keep them afloat for the remainder of their years on this planet. It shouldn’t be a problem because the idea is to simplify. After a grand send-off from their friends, they set out from Los Angeles, planning to renew their wedding vows in Vegas as their first stop. David and Linda will never be the characters from Easy Rider. But it takes them losing everything to truly understand that.
Packed to the gills with Albert Brooks’ signature dialog, and played to the hilt by both leads, Lost in America has a long set-up. But it’s a testament to Brook’s clever characterization that by the time they hit the road, and get flipped off by a legit biker in their behemoth mobile home, we fully understand why this is the worst idea they’ve ever had.
Pre-departure, a long, unbroken tracking shot follows David into the office on the morning he expects to receive “the promotion”. Though he’s buzzing with nervous energy, he has unwavering expectations regarding the outcome of the meeting. He has gone all in on this job and feels that every career decision he’s ever made has led to this moment. So when his boss blindsides him with a lateral move and transfer to New York, it hits David hard. Brooks makes sure the audience understands that a disappointment is all this is. David hasn’t actually lost anything until his ego and sense of entitlement cause him to flip out on his boss. Before he loses anything, he already feels like he’s lost everything. So in his mind, the logical leap is to blow up his life and “drop out of society.” It’s an adult temper tantrum inspired by a Peter Fonda movie.
Unfortunately, Linda has just been complaining to a co-worker about her own sense of dissatisfaction, so rather than talk David down as most spouses would, she buys into his cocaine-level manic pitch. This is a brilliant scene with another long take, shooting David and Linda from the side. David buzzes at the prospect of following in the footsteps of his heroes. He climbs furniture like Tom Cruise on Oprah, selling his idea to his wife, even though he’s already made up his mind: “Well, it’s time to get out. We have to touch Indians! We have to see the mountains and the prairies and the whole rest of that song.” Seeing that she’s unconvinced, he switches tactics and tries to make it sound like her idea. “Linda, you were right. No more ‘responsible David’. I’m free! I was responsibly blind, honey. I was a dead man.” This is some of Albert Brooks’ best acting, as he’s able to maintain a remarkable level of energy in one unbroken shot. Hagerty, meanwhile, plays it straight, quietly absorbing this heretofore-unknown side to her husband.
Both David and Linda had expected the promotion to be the cure for their yuppie malaise. In a way, their blind confidence in the magic of “the promotion” should have been a sign of things to come for this shortsighted couple. Once their Plan A crumbles, a drastic move like “dropping out of society” makes perfect sense to them. But Brooks brilliantly peppers the first act of the film with clues that the promotion wouldn’t have changed anything for them. The most potent example is the scene just before David’s pivotal meeting, wherein he haggles with a car salesman over the particulars of a brand new brown and beige Mercedes. There is no better metaphor for the 1980’s yuppie dream than a beige Mercedes.
The Howards are on the wrong foot before they even cross the Los Angeles city limits. It’s hard to drop out of society when it costs hundreds of dollars to fill up your gas-guzzling mobile home. A real rejection of yuppie culture would require a total shift in their mentality and a complete abandonment of their known life. Their “nest egg” is really their way of keeping one foot on the diving board. So when they accidentally fall into the pool, they have no idea how to tread the waters of a life “outside of society.” As their experiment spirals down the tubes, David’s delivery of, “we dropped out of society” as a way of explaining their failures to the people they meet becomes more and more desperate. Learning that money doesn’t buy happiness is what inspires them to “drop out.” But what they don’t understand, and have to learn the hard way, is that having no money really doesn’t buy happiness.
Though the film takes place in the Reagan era, from the rampant use of the color brown, not all that much has changed. We still have well-meaning idiots with too much money combined with liberal guilt. These are people who think living in an expensive mobile home is “just like Easy Rider.” By the time they’re forced to find minimum wage jobs in a small Arizona town, they’ve hit rock bottom. But rock bottom for them is still so much better than it is for any American in the lowest tax bracket. David has trouble getting work because his previous experience and former salary make him a poor fit for any of the jobs the employment office has to offer. As the recruiter says, they don’t have any jobs in the $100,000 box. The Howards don’t belong in this world. They belong with the “bald headed man from New York.” How nice for them that they are able to find a solution to their troubles in the end. All they have to do to get out of it is to eat some humble pie. And even then, at least they’re eating.
The Criterion DVD/Blu-ray includes a recent 30-minute interview with Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide, discussing Brooks’ unique brand of comedy and how it ties into the film. There are also interviews with Julie Hagerty, executive producer, Herb Nanas, and screenwriter James K. Brooks, as well as a theatrical trailer and liner notes by Scott Tobias.
Jessica Baxter is a Contributing Editor at Film International.