Was Albert Brooks’ ‘Lost In America’ the Quintessential ’80s Comedy?

The 1985 film, new to the Criterion Collection, asks uncomfortably prickly questions about the '60s generation's place in the '80s.

“My God, sometimes I wish we really were irresponsible,” Linda tells David, and because they’re who they are, born when they were, he takes it as an insult. “Calling me responsible is like calling me old or stodgy!” he insists, and besides, he’s got it all figured out: when he gets the big promotion, with elevated title and the huge salary bump and the big new house it will let them buy, then he’ll be free. Being in a position of responsibility, you see, will allow him to be irresponsible.

That’s the kind of logical and linguistic curlicue that Albert Brooks does best, and he never did it better than in his 1985 comedy Lost in America, which makes its Blu-ray debut this week via the Criterion Collection. It’s an endlessly funny and often uncomfortable piece of work, featuring some of the sharpest, deftest writing Brooks and frequent collaborator Monica Johnson ever crafted. But it’s particularly noteworthy for the way in which it shines their signature preoccupation through the era when it was made, and what it tells us now about that time.

Like many a mid-‘80s lifestyle comedy, everything hinges on the big promotion. When David (Brooks) enters his office on that fateful day, Eric Saarinen’s camera tracks him restlessly, less like he’s the protagonist of a comedy than a thriller – that’s how high the stakes are. And the whole thing is a disaster, with David discovering that his promotion has gone to a dimmer colleague with less seniority, while he’s being shipped off to New York for what is, at best, a lateral position change. The scene is a jewel of writing, directing, and playing, a tight comic highlight that leaves in enough air for David’s slow unhinging, his evolution from disbelief to denial to straight-up fury. He ends up not promoted, but fired – yet by the time he tells Linda (Julie Hagerty) his news, he’s ready to chuck it all, the jobs and the house and all the trappings of their bourgeois lifestyle.

You see, if they sell all their stuff, they can buy a big RV, see America (and “find themselves”), and live for as long as they’d like on a comfortable nest egg – free to paint, write, or just plain drop out. “This is what we talked about when we were nineteen!” he explains, giddily. “This is just like Easy Rider, except it’s our turn! We can drop out, and we still have our nest egg!”

“We really can do anything we want, can’t we?” she asks, teary-eyed – a dazzlingly double-edged moment, because the newfound freedom she’s so moved by is only enabled by a life ensnared by capitalism. Or, as she puts it later: “That’s not how you drop out! If you’re really gonna drop out, you drop out with nothing!

But the value of Lost in America is its genuine fascination with those contradictions. It’s a wildly unpredictable movie, particularly for a mainstream 1980s comedy; Brooks and Johnson seem to be setting up a road movie with a tinge of social satire, but then transform it a comedy of desperation. And then, when you think it’ll be that story, it veers into something else entirely. The first left turn comes when they stop for a night in Vegas, ostensibly to renew their vows, until Linda sneaks down to the roulette wheel in the middle of the night and blows their nest egg. All of it – “Give or take a thousand,” she adds. “This is like an episode of The Twilight Zone!” David moans, which is accurate, not just in what happens, but how. We don’t see Linda go down to the tables, or any of her long night of gambling; we make the discovery with David, in all his helplessness and confusion, awaking after it’s already too late, as she’s bleary-eyed at the table, yelling at the wheel (“C’mon back to me, 22!”). We’ve already observed a quiet tension in nearly all of their conversations, the pattern of pokes and jabs that longtime couples can fall into when they’re saying one thing but talking about everything. But after that disastrous night in Vegas, the niceties are gone, and few people on this earth make angry as funny as Albert Brooks does, turning his glorious prickliness into a comic weapon. The arguments are funny, but – and this is key – the conflicts and stakes are real.

Throughout Lost in America, Brooks indulges in some of his most familiar comic tropes. There are bits rooted in social norms, as he fails miserably at smoothly tipping a hotel clerk for the bridal suite (“Just to save time, how much do you want”), or the couple gets into a loud, ugly fight at the Hoover Dam, while tourists flee around them. And he displays a particular amusement with the way dishonesty is packaged in softening language: their standard hotel room is called a “junior bridal suite” (“Is there a senior bridal suite?” he asks), while a Mercedes salesman assures him that the car doesn’t have leather interior, but it does have “Mercedes leather.”

From a comic standpoint, the film shines brightest in its virtuosic duets. In fact, it’s mostly a series of two-scenes, with David facing off either against his wife, or someone who has something he needs, and is uninterested in doing what he wants. Brooks and Johnson’s gift is to take these funny conflicts and run them through every possible angle. They find the complexities of these characters and situations in the nooks and crannies of those conversations; witness, for example, how the kindness of the man in the small-town unemployment office curdles when he hears their sob story. Told of the salary David walked away from to change his life, he asks pointedly, “You couldn’t change your life on a hundred thousand dollars?”

Small, telling moments like that run throughout Lost in America, and give the movie its bite, particularly in retrospect. David asks the folksy drug store owner, “Any high-paying jobs in the immediate area?” and is told that there aren’t really any anywhere, that he knows of; in heading out to “find America,” to borrow the tagline from Easy Rider, David and Linda discover that the go-go ‘80s never really trickled down. They find themselves in an upper-class nightmare, best dramatized by the indelible image of the bitter Mr. Brooks, sitting in his lawn chair with his stop sign, working as a crossing guard for shitty kids at $5.50/hour, gazing longingly at the approaching Mercedes – the purest symbol of conspicuous consumption, the car that he almost bought, back when they were sell-outs. Out on the road, he asks everyone if they saw Easy Rider; it’s a touchstone and a totem, a reminder of the spirit of freedom that the ‘60s was supposed to represent.

Nostalgia, as we’ve all been told, typically runs in twenty-year cycles, so as the ‘70s gave us a ‘50s revival (chiefly fueled by American Graffiti and its unofficial television spin-off Happy Days), the ‘60s were big again in the ‘80s, on film, on television, in fashion. But there was an air of accusation absent from the ‘50s revival; even from this distance, I can recall the tsk-tsk of magazine features about kids of Woodstock who now worked on Wall Street. The assumption always seemed to be that, somewhere deep inside, they still clung their ‘60s ideals. Lost in America might’ve been most daring for proposing that maybe, given the right circumstances and the wrong turn of events, they’d abandon them altogether. Or, worse than that, perhaps they didn’t even need those excuses.

“Lost in America” is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.