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Lost in America (1985) Home Video Review

Bonbon Voyage! 

Though I love 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation as much as most members of my generation, I never realized that it was missing something crucial until I saw Albert Brooks's Lost in America. The key thing is an adult perspective on road-tripping. Both films are about breaking away from the doldrums of suburban living to grab ahold of life--if only for a week--and both are, to some degree, farces; but Lost in America's humor is both nutty and inspiring, whereas Vacation is all about Christie Brinkley's ass and dog-piss sandwiches.

I can't be sure, but Brooks seems to have created Lost in America as an answer to the Vacation phenomenon. His film opens with audio from the Larry King radio show as the camera slowly inspects stacks of moving boxes in a big, dark house. As movie watchers, we've become accustomed to the white noise of clock radios, but as the camera settles on tape-wrapped, framed art, Brooks's director-voice yells out, "No, dummy! Focus on the conversation!"

That conversation, between King and film critic Rex Reed, is about both the state of American comedies and American comedy audiences--Reed's assertion that most mainstream movies are designed to appeal to peoples' basest desires in theatres that have become raucous circus tents is just as true today as it was in 1985. And by presenting this juicy topic against such unspectacular visuals, Brooks gives the mouth-breathers ample warning that his movie might not be for them.

Brooks's character, David Howard, turns off the radio and rolls over in bed to complain to his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), about the house they've just bought. He's worried that he won't get promoted to VP at his ad agency, and that the house and new Mercedes might be a bad idea. Mostly, though, he's worried that he and Linda have become predictable in their comfy, California complacency.

The next morning, David gets passed over for a guy with not nearly as much seniority, and is offered a spot on the new Ford campaign--in New York. He has a breakthrough in his boss's office in the form of a breakdown: all his life, he's taken the most secure path to success and fulfillment, and it's led to nothing but groveling at the feet of someone who sees him as a function and barely as a person. David quits on the spot in spectacular frustration, and heads to Linda's office to convince her to do the same.

That night, at the kitchen table, they figure out how much money they can squeeze out of every investment and stick of furniture they own. It's enough to buy a huge mobile home and travel the country until (if) they find a place to settle down and live off the grid. Cut to the Howards cruising down the highway to the most fitting use of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" I've ever seen. Brooks captures the couple's break for freedom subtly, taking us from close-ups of nervous characters in offices and the packed-up house to the wide-open road. Even the RV looks like a palace by virtue of the sheer exuberance of the people driving it.

Because this is a comedy, we know that not everything will work out for the Howards. But what's surprising is just how wrong things get so early into their trip. They stop at a hotel/casino in Las Vegas as a treat for themselves before renewing their vows the next morning and hitting the road for good. In the middle of the night, David wakes up alone. He heads down to the gaming floor, where the manager (Garry Marshall) informs him that his wife has a gambling problem. David pulls Linda away from the roulette table and into a coffee shop booth, where, wild-eyed, she confesses to losing almost all of their savings.

Despite David's best (and very funny) efforts to convince the casino to give them back their money, the couple find themselves once again on the highway, which seems at once longer and much more confining. I'll leave the rest of their adventure for you to discover, adding only that even though they don't make it out of the west until the last moments of the movie, the Howards's journey is far more hilarious, original and personal than Chevy Chase's trip to Wally World (please keep in mind that we may measure hilarity on different scales).

What makes Lost in America such a satisfying experience is that it's a genuinely inspirational film. Watching it the other night, my wife and I shared a great moment where we paused and contemplated selling everything and becoming road hippies. We didn't get past the phrase, "if we didn't have a kid", but Brooks and Hagerty made the prospect seem so fun and do-able that I'm sure you wouldn't even be reading this review had we seen the film two years ago.

The flip-side, of course, is an important lesson in responsibility. I won't venture into spoiler territory here, but by popping their own privileged bubble, the Howards learn that it's nearly impossible to live completely freely in this country while still being happy. Total freedom is afforded to only the ultra-ultra-wealthy and the ultra-ultra-poor. To be satisfied is to be somewhere in the middle, to feel the satisfaction of a hard-day's work and to not have to worry about where the next meal will come from, or if you'll be able to scrape together enough cash to move your home. It's a lovely balance, underscored by David's trip to an unemployment office late in the film.

Not everything works here, but the few details Lost in America gets wrong are made up for by solid intentions. Brooks falls into the obligatory "pulled-over-by-a-cop" trap that Vacation played to better effect. David and Linda get cited for speeding and talk the officer (Charles Boswell) out of a ticket by zeroing in on a mutual love of the film Easy Rider. It's the movie's one really phony scene, but I appreciated Brooks's efforts to bring in an outside threat to unite the bickering couple.

Like Real Life and Defending Your Life, Lost in America is a funny and insightful look at the uniquely American spectrum of the human condition. You could argue (and I might agree) that Brooks's characters speak mostly to an upper-middle-class perspective, but I think his films aspire to bring out the optimism and capacity for self-reinvention that we hold as a national identity. Be it the ridiculousness of reality TV, a posited afterlife in which we're put on trial for not being bolder in our life choices, or a cross-country, white-guilt odyssey, Brooks busts open the American character and assures us that we really can do anything if we'll just get out of our own heads.

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