' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Lost in America (1985)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Lost in America (1985)

As “Lost in America” opens, David and Linda Howard (Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty) are about to take their upper middle class lifestyle to the next level by moving into bigger home on the heels of David’s forthcoming promotion. The camera glides through their current house, lingering over various moving boxes. “It’s all just stuff,” as Lester Burnham once excoriated in “American Beauty”, another movie of middle class woe. Of course, that 1999 film found reason to hope, even if finding it in the strangest of places, ending with something like a mystical ascent to peace of mind by getting out. “Lost in America”, on the other hand, not only knows there is no getting out but that complaining about where you are is poor form. David isn’t even asleep as “Lost in America” opens; he’s literally wide awake, lying in bed and openly wondering if this new home and new position will make him feel complete. His air suggests he already knows it won’t and yet is unsure what else someone in his position is supposed to do. The next morning, when he phones a Mercedes dealer, weighing whether to buy one with his expectant salary increase, he’s almost trying to talk himself out of it. He knows the car would merely be a status symbol but is inexorably drawn toward it nonetheless, epitomizing the tractor beam of corporate America, living for the future, as David says, eternally fretting the present is good enough. 

That’s not to suggest that Brooks the director views Brooks the character as some kind of tragic figure. If anything, David is a privileged yutz who doesn’t realize how good he’s got it, brought home in the film’s inciting incident when he doesn’t get the promotion and quits. “Only in a movie by Brooks would the hero quit to protest a ‘lateral transfer’ to New York,” the esteemed Roger Ebert wrote. “There’s something intrinsically comic about that: He’s taking a stand, all right, but it’s a narcissistic one.” Indeed, in the aftermath of quitting his job, David invades, more or less, his wife’s office and asks – nay, demands – that she quit too, hardly giving her the space to think it over for herself, summarized in that patented incessant Brooks prattle and Hagerty’s just as patented fluster. That David works in advertising is spot-on given this scene, and so many others, where he essentially reduces his own sense of throwing caution to the wind to making a pitch, rendering his own rebellion as nothing more than a desperate sales job. Later, after he’s convinced Linda to cash in everything and hit the road in an RV, she loses it all in an all-night gambling bender, causing David to pitch the casino manager (Garry Marshall, deftly underplaying opposite Brooks’s classic kvetching) an opportunity to return their money as a PR stunt in nobility. The scene’s hysterical double meaning portrays the American Dream has a hapless bet against the bank and how a yuppie’s rebellion is still contingent on significant sums of money, both “Lost in America’s” funniest joke and its most piercing truth.

We do not see the actual sequence in which Linda loses their money, just the aftermath, where Hagerty’s zombie eyes feel as true to the moment as Brooks’s still-in-his-bathrobe confusion. That we don’t see the moment, however, also teases the possibility that Linda did it on purpose, hinted at in the inevitable argument over their suddenly being broke when she admonishes him that truly dropping out would mean truly having nothing rather than, in his term, a nest egg. David, however, cannot quite wrap his head around such truth, not even when they are reduced to begging for small jobs in a small Arizona town. In an interview with a job counselor (Art Frankel), David earnestly asks about executive positions, causing the counselor to just laugh hysterically, looking at the client across from him like nothing more than the button-down, faux-idealist he is, unable to survive even a few days outside his bubble. 

Brooks directed, of course, and so the movie mostly focuses on his character which isn’t really a problem until these closing sections. Well, not even a problem, really, so much as an opportunity missed. If David can barely conceal his self-pity, Hagerty plays these scenes with a palpable sense of enthusiasm, getting up early to make breakfast, watching aerobics on TV, even happily bringing her teenage boss at the fast food place where she lands work. If it teases the antithesis of David’s own empty self-realization, “Lost in America” leaves that idea hanging, never quite willing to compare his arrogant incredulity against her apparent newfound earnestness. Still, the denouement is side-splitting in its brevity, David and Linda surrendering to the charade and accepting that lateral transfer to New York, sucking it up and admitting that to get anywhere in America you better learn to eat shit. 

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