“Turn on, Tune in, Drop out!” Timothy Leary once proclaimed. Albert Brooks takes it to heart and is born to be wild in his hilarious off-beat comedy, Lost in America“his third feature film as a director and writer, actually co-writer, the script was co-written with his long time writing partner, Monica McGowan Johnson. (1)
Woody Allen and Mel Brooks pretty much dominated the writer/director comedy ledger during the 1970’s and 1980’s but rising fast in the background was Albert Brooks whose first venture into filmmaking was a short called The Famous Comedian’s School originally shown on PBS. In 1975, he made a series of short films on the first season of “Saturday Night Live.” After several acting gigs including a role in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Brooks wrote and directed his first feature-length film in 1979, Real Life, a satirical take of the on the pioneering PBS reality show, though it was not given that now dubious label, An American Family. Today, after too many years of “reality” shows that are unintentional more comical and demeaning to viewers than realistic, the film can be still be seen as a mirror to the seemingly endless number of fabricated “reality” TV shoved down our throats. Real Life had a very limited distribution and modest financial success but did launch Albert Brooks career as an important comedic writer/director.
Lost in America concerns the story of David (Albert Brooks) and Linda (Julie Hagerty) Howard, two materialistic yuppies who have good jobs and a pleasant life in California, but still do not feel fulfilled with their lives. David is expecting a big promotion to Senior Vice-President with the advertising company where he works. However, on the big day he finds out his boss has other “big” plans for him. A transfer to New York to work on a major new account…and no promotion.
David is stunned; he can’t believe it. His jaw dropping response is, “a transfer??? I can get that at a bus stop!” Unable to believe what is happening, He goes on a verbal rampage directed at his boss. In desperation he spits out this must be Candid Camera. Allan Funt must be behind a door, and this is all some kind of not very funny joke.
But there is no “Candid Camera” behind the door, there is no Allan Funt, there is no promotion and the boss is not joking. Someone else got the promotion to Senior Vice-President, and David’s career quickly turns from an expected high point to being escorted out of the building by a security guard after he is fired. David does try to look on the bright side convincing himself that the guy who got his promotion will buy a boat with his new found monetary increase and it will soon sink, with seals voraciously eating him for lunch.
This all leads to a mid-life crisis for the Howard’s. David convinces his wife, Linda to quit her job, and if they can sell their house along with all their worldly possessions, they will have enough money to buy a Winnebago, and still have plenty of money not to worry about ever working again. Just like Billy and Wyatt in David’s favorite movie, Easy Rider, they can go searching for America
And so the Howard’s hit the road to the tune of Steppenwolfs’ Born to Be Wild blasting on the soundtrack. We watch their new Winnebago head out on the highway, looking for adventure, in a superb parody of the Dennis Hopper counterculture hit, Easy Rider.
Their first stop is Las Vegas where they will renew their wedding vows, though not before they decide to spend one night in a luxurious hotel suite. Linda, in the middle of the night gets an uncontrollable urge to gamble. In a feverish bout of non-stop betting the number twenty-two, she blows their entire nest egg on the roulette wheel: except for about eight hundred dollars. This leads to David, in a hysterically convoluted desperate plan, attempting to convince the casino manager (Garry Marshall) to give back their money.
Broke, their marriage reaching rock bottom, they are soon working menial jobs in a small one traffic stop Arizona town. David working as a school crossing guard. Linda is Assistant Manager at a fast food outlet, her boss, the manager, is a sixteen years old kid. The couple come to realize that dropping out may not be the answer, at least not for them. Hell, it didn’t work for Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider either. They soon make their way to New York with plans and hopes of David begging to get his job back.
Is there a moral to this film? I’ m not sure. Some may say, well here you have two well paid yuppies who are unhappy with their high paying jobs and wonderful lives, so when a little bad news arrives while on the way up the corporate ladder, it boo hoo time and I quit. They don’t look for another equivalent job, instead they drop out altogether. After some poor decisions, Linda’s gambling addiction, and some very funny scenes, getting the best of them and their nest egg, the couple go crawling back to Corporate America at a lower salary, but hey at least it’s a real job.
Albert Brooks humor seems closer in style to Woody Allen’s neurotic New York characters than Mel Brooks out and out insanity. Albert Brooks humor is generally more droll than laugh out loud funny, though there are exceptions and unlike most modern day comedians does not go for the cheap laugh. Let’s just say that if stupid humor is your general level of acceptance for laughs with a dash of fart and penis jokes thrown in, then this movie is not for you. Adam Sandler fans need not apply.
While Brooks films made some money during their theatrical runs, they were never big dollar winners at the box office. Over the years, Brooks has developed a dedicated cult following that continues to look forward to his films. Unfortunately, they only come around every five or six years.
(1) Brooks and Johnson won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay.