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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Lost in America (1985)

After re-watching Albert Brooks’ film Modern Romance a few weeks ago (read my review here), I decided the time had come to revisit some of his other films.  I started by tracking down Lost in America, his 1985 film that, somehow, I had never seen.

Mr. Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film, with Monica Johnson) stars as David Howard.  After failing to get a promotion at work — one that he’d been working towards for years — he tells off his boss in spectacular fashion (the explosion is just as much fun as you might think) and gets fired.  So he convinces his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson from Airplane!) to quit her boring job as well.  They sell their house, liquidate their stocks, buy a Winnebago and set out to roam America and find themselves.  Unfortunately, their first stop is in Las Vegas and, after only one night, they’ve lost all their money.  Left with only $800 to their name, David and Linda have to try to find jobs in the small, midwestern town in which they find themselves.

In my humble opinion, Albert Brooks wrote and directed far too few films.  So it was a great delight to get to discover, for the first time, an Albert Brooks film that I’d never seen.  Lost in America certainly isn’t my favorite Brooks film (that would be Modern Romance), but there’s a lot to appreciate here.  There’s a lot of comedy today that wrings laughs from awkward, painful moments (the original British The Office comes to mind), but Mr. Brooks was pushing those boundaries thirty years ago.  For a “comedy,” there’s a lot of real, human moments to be found in Lost in America (and in all his films, really!).

It’s clear from the film’s opening scene — a slow, slow pan through David & Linda’s home, while a Larry King interview with film critic Rex Reed plays on an out-of-sight radio — that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker with great skill.  It’s a very meta choice to start one’s film with a lengthy monologue from Rex Reed talking about films, and it indicates that Mr. Brooks was after more than just a few yuks.  Lost in America tells the story two people who both find themselves trapped in their lives — trapped by their go-nowhere jobs, by the expectations that they put upon themselves about what they “should” be doing, about the house they “should” be living in, and so forth.  It’s a situation in which, one presumes, many middle-class folk find themselves in at one point or another in their lives.  There’s a strong aspect of “wish-fulfillment” in the plan that David and Linda hatch to take all their money and “drop out” of society.  It’s an intriguing premise upon which to hang a film.

Mr. Brooks, as always, is a riot.  The man plays “neurotic” like nobody else.  His first scene in the film — in which he lies awake at night consumed by worries — is a classic.  But Brooks’ character in this film also shows a little more backbone than some of his other roles.  When he’s denied his promotion, David Howard doesn’t just meekly take it — his built-up frustrations explode in a movie-stealing scene.  Brooks has a terrific connection with Julie Hagerty, a gifted comedic actress who, I feel, has been sadly under-utilized in the three decades since Airplane!. The success of the film rests on our attachment to these two “normal” working Americans, and they make a great screen couple.

What prevents me from loving Lost in America is the ending.  For a movie that seems based in a “wish-fulfillment” premise, I found the film’s denouement to be surprisingly downbeat.  (Interestingly enough, I made a similar comment about the ending of Modern Romance.)  According to the film, it seems there is not, in fact, any way out of our worker-drone lives, and that’s a surprising conclusion for a comedy to come to.  I applaud Mr. Brooks for not bowing to standard movie conventions.  But at the same time, it means that aspects of Lost in America aren’t really that much fun to watch!

Still, I do love a movie that blazes its own path.  Albert Brooks has always had a singular voice.  I wish he’d made more films, but I am thankful for the ones we have.  Next week, I think I’ll take another look at his 1991 film, Defending Your Life

See you soon!

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