Albert Brooks' 'Lost in America' Remains Piercingly Relevant 32 Years Later

Aug 7, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 9:33 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Like Woody Allen before him, Albert Brooks gave up standup comedy to make his own films. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, considers Brooks's 1985 film "Lost In America" a masterpiece. It's just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion. "Lost In America" is the story of a well-heeled LA couple, played by Brooks and Julie Haggerty, who decide to become free-spirited wanderers. John just watched it for the umpteenth time and says it's one of the greatest comedies of the last 40 years.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A lot of comedians are funny. But only a handful have the genius to shape the comic terrain. One of them is Albert Brooks, who, in a cosmic bad joke, is probably best known to today's audiences as the voice of Marlin in "Finding Nemo." But back in the early '70s, in a famous Esquire article and a series of legendary "Tonight Show" performances, Brooks set about gleefully exploding the schticks and traditions of standup comedy.

Making comedy about comedy, he blazed the trail for such later masters of showbiz meta as Steve Martin, David Letterman and Bill Murray. By the late '70s, Brooks was making movies, starting with three groundbreaking comedies that explored the triumph of modern narcissism in all its cringe-worthy hilarity. The greatest of these is "Lost In America," just out in in a gorgeous, new package from the Criterion Collection that I highly recommend - but also widely streamable.

Made at the very height of the Reagan years, "Lost In America," co-written with Monica Johnson, feels as relevant to our selfie-mad times as it did in 1985. Brooks stars as David Howard, an LA ad man who makes "Mad Men's" Don Draper looks like a figure of Shakespearean grandeur. Living a comfortably middle-class life with his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty, the neurotic David is looking forward to a promotion so he can buy a new Mercedes and get an even bigger house. When the promotion is denied, he quits his job in a huff and bullies Linda into quitting hers. He insists they must sell off everything, hit the road and be free. Here, Linda responds to his idea of getting a mobile home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOST IN AMERICA")

JULIE HAGERTY: (As Linda) Well, what do you think a motor home costs?

ALBERT BROOKS: (As David) Guess who went motor home shopping? My friends - motor homes for sale. Forty-five thousand - complete for a great one. Thirty feet long, a bedroom, a bath, a kitchen, a microwave that browns, a little TV - beautiful, beautiful. Better than our new house - it has wheels, too. OK. Now, that leaves us $145,000 in cash. Now, play devil's advocate. Can't you live 20 years on $145,000 if you're living out of a motor home and just eating and painting and writing books? I mean, this is what we talked about when we were 19. Remember we kept saying let's find ourselves? Well, we didn't have a dollar, so we watched television instead. Linda, this is just like "Easy Rider," except now it's our turn. I mean, we can drop out, and we can still have our nest egg. I just think that's unheard of.

POWERS: Before we know it, the two are cruising east in their Winnebago, doing their own cushy version of "Easy Rider." But when they stopped to get remarried in Las Vegas, all that bursting neon unleashes unforeseen consequences, including a classic encounter between David and a casino boss played by the late Garry Marshall. From that point on, David and Linda find themselves living in a reality far different to the one they imagined and far funnier in part because its stars are so perfectly matched.

Brooks is one of the most majestic ranters and kvetchers is in movie history. And his verbal mania is only fueled by Hagerty's googly-eyed daffiness. Now, Brooks's comic approach is unsentimental and often uncomfortable. David may be all too human. Brooks clearly sees something of himself in the guy. But he's far from lovable. Indeed, pointing the way to "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Brooks's work creates the prototype of the annoyingly selfish hero who stews in anxiety, bad faith and a sense of always being right. When "Lost In America" came out, it was instantly recognized as a trenchant satire of the emerging species known as yuppies, with their materialism, sense of entitlement and unidealistic belief that the world is their oyster.

What was less clear then was that Brooks was also the first filmmaker to capture the essence of bourgeois Bohemianism, the attempt to embrace the cool lifestyle of the rebel while still having money and comfort. That fantasy is alive and kicking among today's urban strivers, who play vinyl, go glamping and drink artisanal coffee as they try to make their millions. While David and Linda are actually uneasy riders, they don't know how to change their lives. The road they travel isn't "Easy Riders" dreamy America, either.

At one point, they have a fight in front of the Hoover Dam. This is partly a visual gag about scale. Their personal squabbling is dwarfed by the dam. But we also sense the gap between the grandeur of this depression-era triumph of the collective spirit and the debased landscape they travel in, with its mini-malls and Der Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurants. If there's more to America than this, they can't see it, which isn't to say that they don't learn anything from being on the road.

On the contrary, they find out who they really are and how they really want to live. And this self-knowledge leads to a wickedly upbeat ending that includes the greatest gag ever about finding a parking space in Manhattan. David and Linda only stopped being lost in America when they find out that, given the choice, they'd rather be comfortable than free.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

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GROSS: ...We'll hear the story of the Kellogg brothers, who invented Cornflakes and other breakfast cereals and ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which pioneered the concept of wellness. There's lots of surprises in the Kellogg story relating to the Seventh-day Adventists, abstinence, eugenics, probiotics and exercise machines. My guest will be medical historian Howard Markel, author of the new book "The Kelloggs." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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