Swirling, swirling, swirling, all down the drain.
Passed over for a promotion -- scratch that -- fired from his job, helplessly watching as all his hopes and dreams go right down the toilet, David Howard has a moment of clarity. He will follow the path of the counter-culture idols he grew up adoring, those maggot-infested hippie roadsters of Easy Rider. He will sever all ties, and drop out.
Well, most ties. His marriage must stay intact. And they've gotta have a place to live. And a way of paying for it. Plus living expenses. And you know, not all ties are bad... probably best to hold onto a necktie or two, in case the whole plan goes bad. Not that it ever would...! These are, after all, two mature, well-adjusted adults, wandering off the grid (well, not really off...) as a perfectly levelheaded mutual decision. Right? Right?!? They are, as the song goes, looking for adventure. And whatever comes their way.
"I quit my job. You do it!" he enthusiastically intones to his wife Linda, a deer in the headlights moment for her at her desk at work if ever she had one. Spurred on by a previous, anxiety-ridden late night conversation about responsibility, and how David knows no spontaneity, he decides to chuck it all, throw caution to the idiot wind, and head out on the highway.
This will be the Howards new life together: driving around freely in a brand new, state of the art motor home. Just going wherever, and doing stuff. Living entirely off of their collective "nest egg," the sum wealth of all of their holdings, cashed in; somewhere in the neighborhood of $190,000. Yeah, that ought to do it.
Seeing how they've already sold their house in anticipation of David's big failed promotion paying for an all-new house, the sudden bright idea of dropping out of society never seemed brighter. Brighter still, if equally kitschy, is David's romantic notion to remarry Linda at one of those 24-hour express wedding chapels in Las Vegas. The city that never sleeps will be their first stop.
Linda, a vulnerable flower with a backbone and quite possibly the world's biggest passive-aggressive streak, loves David and therefore doesn't have the heart to tell him they're dropping out all wrong. So again, he will helplessly watch the swirling, swirling, swirling of everything going right down an altogether bigger and much scarier toilet.
In the pantheon of quote-unquote American Dream movies, this is the one that sticks with me. It might also be the most momentarily topical, despite its many and persistent Reagan-era observations on materialism run amok, "the Big Chill," and what pulling yourself up by the bootstraps might actually mean, all of this amid a flurry of some of the best Brooks comedy barbs and quips of his career.
The beauty of Lost in America is that, at heart, it actually isn't a message movie. It is, quite simply, a relationship movie; a breezy tale of a terminally yuppie, unsurprisingly childless couple that is looking to reconnect and begin again. Yet, it's full of strife, disconnections, selfishness, desperation, arguing, loss, painful self-realization, dread, humiliation, failure, and a sock to the face. Quite fortunately, all those things can be made hilarious in the right creative hands.
When the Howards' end comes -- and it must -- it's a resolution unlike that of most any movie. For these characters to prevail in any way, they must swallow every shred of pride and self actualization they've harbored up to this point, be it from their lives pre-, post- or during their big ballyhooed drop-out. There’s this precarious notion lingering underneath it all that perhaps our lives aren’t as much ours to dictate as we’d like to believe.
It's interesting to hear Brooks, in his brand new bonus interview, discuss how he initially didn’t want to be in this film, and had Bill Murray lined up. It was only when he learned that Murray wouldn’t be available until the far off year of 1987 that he decided it would be him, once again, directing himself.
It helps that he’s playing opposite Julie Hagerty, the perfect choice for Linda. Well grounded from her Airplane! style of comedy, Hagerty delivers an icy glare just as readily as she delivers a championship smile. Her character is someone who’d have a lot of reasons to be fed up, and good reason to finally snap. Yet, she’s endeared to this clown of a husband she’s married.
Along the way, thanks to the screenplay by Brooks and writing partner Monica Johnson, several delightfully odd and colorful supporting characters filter through the story. Art Frankel is a small town unemployment office worker who’s comically ruthless with his put-downs when David inquires about local jobs that pay $100,000 a year in the humble Podunk ‘burb they’ve landed in.
Then there’s Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall, unforgettably great in his role as a casino manager. He’s so good, so endearing, that no amount of New Years Eves, The Other Sisters or Valentine’s Days could diminish the residual affection he gathered from this movie. His presence is a highlight not only of Lost in America, but of his entire directing/producing/acting career.
Some may be confused or taken aback as to why a seemingly lightweight chuckle-driven two-hander such as this would find its destination in the Criterion Collection. While Brooks' directorial chops might not be in line with Bergman, Kurosawa or Antonioni, to dismiss his filmography as run of the mill or plain would be wrong. Brooks is nothing if not reliable as a satirical West Coast neurotic laugh crafter, both as a screen or stand-up presence. His sharp knack for the absurd is somewhat concealed beneath his characters' polos and khakis, but it remains potent to this day.
Criterion’s done a fine job of gathering brand new interviews with several key participants of Lost in America, including a 30-minute chat with Brooks himself, another chat with Julie Hagerty, and more. The accompanying essay by Scott Tobias points out why the film remains relevant throughout its hilarity. The wait to finally have this gem on Blu-ray has paid off big time, looking and sounding absolutely terrific; a treasure worthy of anyone’s home video nest egg.
The pop culture landscape would be lacking without Albert Brooks, and Lost in America stands as his singular best film. It's not because of its surprising return to resonance in the Trump era. It's not because of the way it stealthily deconstructs its own social climate, or because of how it then breaks down that breakdown. It's not because of the haphazard travelogue that it is. It's not even for its many miles of memorable quips and situations.
Those things are important, and definitely matter, but they’re not it. It's his best film, and one that is worthy of this treatment because of the American portrait that it is. It's a portrait no less ridiculous than it is accurate, but too many of us can relate.
We know this couple, their ticks, travails and all, and can't wait to see where their unpredictable journey takes them. Long term security and their middle aged freedoms may be flushed away for the Howards, but at least they may be happy to know that the film of their sordid adventure has aged quite well.