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Tuesday
Jun282011

Manhattan (1979) Home Video Review

 

Dreaming in Color

Seriously, why isn't Woody Allen our most heralded director? And why have I come to his movies so late in life? I feel exactly like the kind of thoughtless Neanderthal his character in Manhattan, Isaac, would ridicule for floundering in a world of cheap entertainment.

The film centers on Isaac's equally daunting challenges of finding love and getting over an ego that is at once expansive and deeply bruised. We meet him in a bar, in the middle of light conversation with his best friends, a married couple named Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne), and his new girlfriend, seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). The age difference is shocking at first (Isaac is forty-two), but we soon learn of an even queasier coupling: Yale confesses to Isaac that he's cheating with Mary (Diane Keaton), a snobby, firebrand journalist.

Yale is conflicted about the relationship, but not so embarrassed that he doesn't introduce his best friend to his mistress. They instantly hate each other; while everyone in the movie is an intellectual to some degree, there's a definite philosophical divide between the Mary type, who speaks loftily about art, literature and politics--only to declare all of it lame (her phlegmy pronunciation of "overrated" artist Vincent Van Gogh's name as "Vincent Van Gaaahchh" drives Isaac nuts); and the Isaac type, who despises popular culture but has a no time for people who don't appreciate art and sensitivity. Of course, they end up together.

That part's not surprising, although the speed with which they hook up is. I'd expected Manhattan to be more about Isaac being jealous of his boneheaded, unavailable friend; but Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman keep Isaac front and center, focusing the story on his new dilemma of a three-way relationship: he and Tracy; he and Mary; and he and his incredible neuroses. He carries the burden of not telling Emily about Yale's indiscretions and then feels the shame of two-timing Tracy. But that guilt is out-matched by the joy he feels in going out with such sexy, challenging women.

Stepping back from the synopsis, I realize this probably sounds like a Melrose Place episode recap--and I haven't even mentioned Isaac's newly-out-lesbian ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) or the book she's writing about their failed marriage. The brilliance of Manhattan is that the picture flows smoothly and picks up story details and personality quirks the way a river carries driftwood. The situations never feel contrived; I believed in the silly mistakes these people made and watched in horrified delight as they dug themselves deeper into tragicomic holes.

The screenplay has a lot to do with that success and, unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen's injection of pseudo-standup anecdotes into Isaac's dialogue doesn't feel the least bit phony here; partially, I think, because he's a television writer/aspiring novelist (just like most of the other characters he meets). But also because Isaac finds himself in the middle of a lot of ridiculous conversations, which naturally opens his comedic floodgates.

But so much credit has to be given to the cast. What's great is that Allen's casting shows us just how right or wrong his couples are for each other, long before anyone on-screen realizes it.  This is a wonderfully bonkers group of Muppies (Middle-aged Urban Professionals), all fighting to rationalize their basest impulses with things they learned in school. Murphy and Keaton collide in a wreck of bored, desperation/fear of aging and a desperate need to be loved, respectively. Murphy plays Yale as a geeky stud who has everything together on the outside but who, by the end of the movie, is reduced to the kind of whining mess that he, I think, always perceived Isaac as. And Keaton tells us so much about Mary's upbringing both in the way she delivers her little bit of backstory dialogue and in the public/private dichotomy of her personality; she rambles on authoritatively about modern art as if she'd invented the form but then stomps around in a tantrum because she can't figure out why she only attracts weird, unavailable men; she also has a dog named Waffles.

Hemmingway and Streep do wonders with their smaller parts. As Jill, Streep embodies the cumulative frustration of a life lived with a self-absorbed, spineless intellectual; it's never suggested that Isaac's problems drove her to lesbianism, but there's a liberated airiness in their scenes--argumentative as they are--that illustrates the difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones. And Hemmingway is a revelation; only eighteen at the time, she emodies an intelligence that has not yet allowed its innocence to be corrupted. Though Tracy hangs out with people who are older than her parents, she doesn't get caught up in their bullshit. Indeed, she's the only cool voice of reason in Isaac's life; so, naturally he ignores her, except when it's convenient.

Despite being kind of a lovable asshole, Isaac makes for a wonderful, modern hero. Growing up, I remember a pop meme that said women found Woody Allen really sexy (until that mid-90s business, which, in light of his films' subject matter, should have surprised no one). I never got that, but I do now. He's smart and bookishly attractive, but he is also unafraid to wear his troubled heart on the lapel of his corduroy jacket. It's hard to say who the real Allen is, but Isaac feels like such an autobiographical construct that he might as well be a flesh-and-blood heartbreaker. As much as I didn't approve of Isaac's lecherousness, Allen made me understand it; and even sold it to me a bit by coloring his urges with a sense of moral conflict that is so undeniably human that I couldn't believe I was watching a romantic comedy.

The coolest character in the movie, though, is Manhattan. I hate it when critics describe a time or a place as a character because it's just cute, lazy shorthand that rarely means anything. So when I say the city is a "character", I mean that Allen spends so much time fetishizing the city's "personality" that it might as well have received a SAG membership. This isn't a knock. In fact, the way in which he and cinematographer Gordon Willis shoot the city informs the story as much as it gives it a place to unfold. In most scenes, the characters are small in the frame, underlining how ridiculous their self-imposed problems are in the grand scheme of things; in some cases, this dwarfing presents New York as the ultimate shrine to beauty, a place where people can't help but fall in love.

Allen's decision to shoot in black and white is another genius stroke. The light/dark dynamic sells the buildings, parks and apartments as the architectural and natural wonders that they are. The camera movements often create abstract images that morph into clarity (as in the beautiful planetarium scene, where Isaac and Mary's faces become talking constellations). Manhattan is such a crisp, gorgeous looking picture that after awhile I started to believe that I could get on a plane to New York and step off into a magical world of gray tones.

Once again, I find myself lamenting the fact that more filmmakers haven't followed Woody Allen's lead in the decades since he started making wonderful movies like this. Maybe audiences are too afraid of watching people who talk like they've earned degrees, or maybe the people who get movies made think that of ticket buyers. Whatever the case, I can't think of a recent romantic comedy that is as satisfying comedically, dramatically, or visually, and that's really, really sad.

Sunday
Jun262011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Like a Drifter, I was Born to Stalk Alone

I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for the first time in 1998. Back then, The Northgate Theatre in Addison, Illinois showed cult movies at midnight during summer weekends, and I went with a friend to see what all the hype was about.

The movie didn't disappoint; in fact, the experience of seeing it in a theatre freaked me the hell out. On top of the low-budget, pseudo-doc-realism that co-writer/director John McNaughton used to bring his story of a psychopath to life, there was also a creepy guy sitting in front of me. He spent the entire film leaning forward, his arms propped up on the seats in front of him and his head staring lovingly up at the screen. My friend and I left as soon as the end credits rolled, in order to not risk running into him in the parking lot.

For more than a decade, I've considered Henry the high-water mark of disturbing movies. But watching it recently, I was struck by just how much of the coal-black humor I'd missed the first time around. Yes, a good deal of the film chronicles the chillingly awful work of a drifter named Henry (Michael Rooker) who kills indiscriminately using a variety of weapons (guns, broken bottles, a TV set). The film takes place in Chicago, where Henry has taken a temporary roommate named Otis (Tom Towles), a green-toothed, drug-dealing pervert who can't admit he has a taste for teenage boys. Otis's initial revulsion on finding out about Henry's pastime turns to fascination and, eventually, to an eagerness for mentorship. Together, as he and Henry break prostitutes' necks and invade suburban homes to videotape murders and engage in necrophilia, the movie strays from the brutal realism of the opening twenty minutes and becomes The Odd Couple with a body count.

The main characters bicker, and Henry always has to keep a close eye on his sloppy partner to prevent him from, say, leaving one of their tapes running after he's passed out, drunk. Complicating matters is Otis's sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who's left a bad marriage down south and hopes to regain her footing in the Windy City. She's instantly smitten with the quiet, muscular Henry. Even though he confesses to killing his mother while making small talk, Becky sees a chivalrous bad-boy in need of a good woman. Too bad for her, Henry has some competition--in the form of Otis, who aims his misguided, sexual rage at his naive sibling (no stranger to familial abuse, Becky's father raped her so often as a child that she eventually became blasé about that lost, terrifying decade).

I'd wager that, when this movie was released, every frame was deemed too horror-show for the faint of heart. But in the ensuing twenty-five years, after a heaping helping of pop-cultural desensitization, people may not find Henry as unbearable as they once did. Henry's revelation that, as a boy, his mother made him put on a dress and have sex with strangers was probably pretty shocking once, but now it just seems like piling on. Indeed, everyone has such a twisted backstory that they can easily been seen as functions instead of characters--essentially making Henry snuff porn disguised as a cautionary tale for the middle class.

Despite the "fun" factor (I've got problems, okay?), McNaughton does sprinkle some pretty amazing terror into his film. He includes Henry's crime scenes as interstitial flavoring, and it looks to me like he used actors for all of the corpses instead of dummies. This is quite remarkable, considering Charlie Lieberman's camera pans slowly around mutilated bodies that are clearly flesh-and-bone, but which sit perfectly, eerily still. The home invasion is also really effective, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rob Zombie studied it when prepping the hotel scenes in The Devil's Rejects.

I can't say enough good things about the principal cast. Rooker's Henry is a sweaty, oddly chivalrous monster, and every time he says more than five words it's unclear whether he has a mental handicap or just a head full of demons. Towles plays Otis as such a greasy, unscrupulous mound of crap that I could practically smell him through the screen. Arnold is the weakest of the three, but that's like being the third-best head on Mount Rushmore. My issue is not so much with her but with the fact that McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire give Becky little to do except be trusting and get ogled.

A minor casting crisis becomes evident when considering the supporting players. To a person, actor delivers their lines with the worst Chi-caaaahgo ayuk-ccents I've seen outside the old SNL "Super Fans" sketches. I get that the director wanted to give a shout-out to his hometown, but not everyone in the city talks like an amusement-park Al Capone.

If you've never seen Henry and you're easily offended by relentless images of evil, you've been warned. If you haven't seen Henry in a long time and still think it's the most brutal film ever made, give it another whirl and see if you don't chuckle at least as much as you cringe.

Saturday
Jun252011

Bad Teacher (2011)

Classless, Dismissed

On Thursday, while working my day job, I got a 4pm e-mail informing me of a large project that needed to be done right away. I knocked off at 6, went to dinner with friends, and returned to the office at 10:45. I got home at 3am and returned to work five hours later, after two-and-three-quarters hours of some of the worst sleep of my life.

I could never have guessed beforehand, but this was the perfect mental state in which to watch Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher--a movie so tired and unfocused that I got everything I needed out of it even while nodding off about twenty times.

In fairness, I can't blame Kasdan. There's nothing about the movie that suggests it was directed by anyone with a flair or signature. It's a flat, jumbled series of bombing sketches strung together by the flimsy idea that Cameron Diaz is really attractive.

Okay, I've exposed a personal bias. But my issue with the star really does play a central part in Bad Teacher's failure as a movie. Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg apply the same brand of illogic to this screenplay as they did to their laugh-free embarrassment, Year One: Have really popular actors and once-gifted (now utterly neutered) comedians bring the weakest, fart-jokiest screenplay imaginable to life in the hopes that the mere ingredients will result in a classic comedy. Bad Teacher takes the formula to new lows by not bothering with annoyances like relatable character motivations and through-lines.

Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a middle-school teacher who loves money and hates kids. After getting engaged to Mark (Nat Faxon), a wealthy something-or-other, she quits her job for a life of leisurely shopping. The film opens with her last day of school, after which she arrives home to Mark and his sensible mother (Stephanie Faracy), both of whom have the good sense to break up with this gold-digging shrew.

Elizabeth returns to the school the following semester, determined to snag the new, hot substitute teacher, Scott (Justin Timberlake), who also happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty. Because Scott's ex-girlfriend had big boobs, Elizabeth naturally assumes that's all he's looking for in a woman, so she spends the rest of the picture stealing money to pay for new tits.

That's the plot.

She commandeers a student car wash and brings in Horny Suburban Dad dollars by practically masturbating with the hose; she rigs the Illinois standardized test so she can take top prize as Teacher of the Year and win a $5700 bonus. Her teaching method involves screening classroom dramas like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me for weeks on end (eventually, she resorts to showing Scream, which is sort of about school; it's Bad Teacher's one clever moment).

The rest of the faculty at Jane Addams Middle School are bubbly, oblivious cartoon characters with silly cartoon-character names. Principal Snur (John Michael Higgins) and Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch) are bubbly do-gooders with a thinly protected layer of darkness. Elizabeth and Ms. Squirrel form a rivalry because one is an annoyingly sweet educator who cares about her kids' futures, and the other is a dumb, money-grubbing tart. Of course, because the tart is our story's hero, Ms. Squirrel must be knocked down several pegs, humiliated, and eventually shown to be untrustworthy (because having an upstanding foil be decent from start to finish is just too complicated an idea for audiences to work with). The one person who doesn't fully tolerate Elizabeth's facade is the gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segel), but that's only because he has a crush on her.

By film's end, Elizabeth realizes that she doesn't need big breasts to get a man because there's a perfectly decent, totally free push-over in the athletic department. This romance caps off a triumphant run of scheming that involves blackmailing a member of the board of education (Thomas Lennon), framing Ms. Squirrel for stealing all the money, and not bothering to teach her students anything academic. Elizabeth gets off scot-free with a new boyfriend and a cushy gig as a guidance counselor.

You may wonder how I followed all of this while essentially sleeping through half the movie. No, I didn't copy the synopsis from Wikipedia, nor did I ask someone who was alert the whole time for a recap. Bad Teacher sets up each scene with a story point and then plays out base, pseudo-vulgar jokes about said point until the next scene--there are no nuances or developments in the middle with which to be concerned. So when presented with a five-minute sequence where Elizabeth seduces Board of Education Guy, I safely checked out because the movie had proven that nothing interesting or funny (to an adult) would get past me.

Believe it or not, I was kind of excited to see Bad Teacher. I laughed a little bit at the trailers, and was sucked in by the supporting cast. I'm a big fan of Timberlake (fuck you), Segel, and Higgins, and I figured they'd be enough to prop up Diaz--who, apart from her voice-over work on the Shrek franchise and a five-minute scene in Vanilla Sky, has failed to interest me as an actress. She reminds me of savagely unattractive club girls who dress sexily and aggressively make themselves up to mask the fact that the steak beneath the sizzle has passed its sell-by date.

Bad Teacher is also like those club girls. It wraps itself in bad language and dry-humping gags, but underneath it's neither smart nor edgy enough to register as anything but desperate. The gold standard for the pit-black comedy this movie aspires to be is Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa. That film requires a lot of tarnish-remover to find its black heart; its characters are truly miserable and vicious, and would eat a poser like Elizabeth for breakfast. More importantly, it stands by the convictions of its hard-R rating, reveling in jokes about sodomy, crime, and alcoholism while showing what such depravity does to a person over time. Bad Teacher has an R-rated mouth, but a strictly PG-13 mind.

Diaz is definitely invested in the material, but everyone else is slumming. All of the best jokes were swallowed by the trailer; leaving us with essentially a mass-hypnosis exercise, in which each of the cast performs one-note, SNL-quality shtick while bouncing off the other performers, who are acting in different, imaginary sketches. Punch is especially wasted, having been relegated to an imbalanced, psycho-soccer-mom archetype instead of being given the chance to stretch what are potentially hilarious and heartwarming comedic gifts. The material is so far beneath everyone involved (except Diaz) that I get the feeling they would have skipped this movie at the multiplex had they not been been cast. Bad Teacher is a goddamned tragedy, and I'm glad I was semi-conscious for most of it.

Tuesday
Jun212011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Your Roots Are Showing

Here's an actual exchange between me and a stranger, walking out of The Tree of Life:

Stranger:  Excuse me, sorry. I got here about ten minutes late. Did one of the brothers die?

Me:  Uh huh.

Stranger:  Which one?

Me: I dunno (shrugs, leaves).

Let me officially begin this review by announcing that I've finally broken my "Never Walk Out on a Movie" rule. The fact that I sat through the entirety of The Tree of Life is a technicality. You see, I also have a policy against annoying my fellow moviegoers; so when, twenty minutes into this nearly two-and-a-half-hour odyssey of pretension, I got the urge to look up show times for Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris on my phone, I remembered that such behavior is inexcusable--so I slumped down and ate my truckload of Brussel sprouts, as it were.

You may have heard that writer/director Terrence Malick's new film about how the struggles of a 1950s Texas family play into the creation and destruction of our very own planet Earth is terribly important. People may have even gushed over the amazing spiritual themes, deep analyses of the human condition and cool dinosaurs that are all over the art-house event of the summer.

If anyone has tried to sell you that shit, feel free to send me their name and address so I can personally slap them in the face. The Tree of Life is as deep as the box of Dots I almost threw at the screen in frustration, and all the pretty photography in the world can't make up for Malick's failure to tell a coherent story.

Oh, but he wants it to! We get lots of footage of quasars and lava and plants growing and clouds rolling by--all inter-cut with scenes from the life of the troubled O'Brien family. Little Jack (Hunter McCracken) butts heads with his hard-nosed, engineer dad (Brad Pitt) and seeks comfort in the embrace of his mother (Jessica Chastain). Through the course of the film, we see Jack become a bully to his two younger brothers and grow up to be some sort of depressed businessman (Sean Penn).

Malick's grand ruse is his inclusion of the planet-forming/cell-division/dinosaur stuff. None of this has any thematic resonance with Jack's story, unless you count the fact that, yes, all of the people in this film descended from cosmic goo. Some will argue that there must be some greater significance simply because it's all mashed together with the main story; but I have no problem calling that out as nonsense.

The proof lies in Jack's story, a clichéd horror-behind-the-picket-fences yarn we've seen a thousand times before done in at least twelve more effective iterations. Malick again draws attention away from his problems by jumping around in time; from Jack's toddler-hood to his pre-teen years to adulthood; and back and forth, ad nauseam, until we're meant to give up looking for narrative integrity and "just go with it, man." I'd be okay with that if, in the final analysis, the story held up.

It doesn't.

At all.

Let's start with Jack's age. The Tree of Life is set "in the 1950s"; I know this as much from Wikipedia and IMDb as from the film itself--along with many other facts of the story. Sean Penn was born in 1960, anywhere from one to ten years after this movie's time period. Jack is about eleven years old for most of the story, placing his date of birth sometime in the 40s; meaning Jack could be as old as 70. Does Penn strike you as "dream casting" for this role?

Okay, sure, you could call that a nitpick (I call it paying attention). But let's talk about the Amazing Appearing/Disappearing Third Brother. As hinted at in my opening anecdote, there was some confusion as to which of Jack's brothers dies in the movie. Early on, we see three boys playing in a tree (of life). We come to know them as Jack and his siblings. In the next scene, Jack's mother receives a telegram informing her that one of her sons has died. I naturally assumed that there was another boy that we hadn't yet seen who'd passed away; but two scenes later, Old Jack informs us that his brother died at the age of nineteen, and we come to find out that the O'Briens only ever had the three kids; meaning there's a seamless, twelve-year(ish) leap between a scene of kids playing in the yard and another of their mom getting a telegram saying that one of them has died.

So we have one dead brother. We flash back to Jack as a toddler, helping his parents welcome a newborn to the family. We then flash forward to three brothers running around the house. In a later scene, the dad fails to save a boy from drowning at the local swimming pool, and we cut to the funeral, where Jack and his first brother solemnly walk with their dad away from the church.

"My God!" I thought, "They lost the youngest brother!" Oh, wait. No, there he is, skipping into frame. So who died at the pool? Some random kid from the neighborhood, I guess.

I don't know if the youngest brother dies in the future, but Old Jack sure is mopey about something his dad said about his dead brother. We never find out, but I hope he's not still clinically depressed over someone who died over thirty years ago--especially since the two of them never really got along (Jack once coerced his brother into sticking a wire hanger into a lamp socket, and also nearly shot off his finger with a BB gun).

But I guess he'd be messed up anyway, coming from a strict household with a violent, tyrannical dad. Except it isn't until more than halfway through the movie that we learn of the father's abusiveness. He's a disciplinarian, sure, and kind an aloof dick, but not a belts-and-welts kind of guy. In fact, his blowing up at the kids over dinner and making with the fists felt like the most forced, unnatural thing in the world.

Where did the rage come from? And why did the wife, a few scenes later and out of absolutely fucking nowhere, decide to grow some guts and defend her sons--once and never again? These are questions that are typically answered using something called "storytelling". Malick is interested in creating moments, and not so much in mapping out how anyone arrived at them (despite allusions to a cosmic something-or-other). We learn nothing about how the parents met; when they fell out of love; why they had so many kids; what happened after the kids moved out; what became of Jack between the ages of twelve and, um, "fifty"; or any of the other myriad questions one would reasonably ask if watching all of this unfold chronologically.

Seriously, The Tree of Life plays as if someone threw the first draft of the Revolutionary Road screenplay in the air and then created a new outline by re-numbering the pages, based on where they landed; to make this a perfect analogy, imagine half those pages flying away in a heavy wind, and a panicked intern suggesting that Malick pad the run-time with deleted scenes from Nova.

Speaking of which, has anyone clued Terrence Malick in to the home-theatre revolution? He realizes most cinephiles now have high-definition televisions, right? That we can turn on Discovery at home for eight hours instead of having to trek to the theatre to see beautiful nature footage? Just checking.

For all the hype and substance that beret-sporting hipsters have tacked onto this movie, The Tree of Life is nothing more than an art-house Avatar, a gorgeous-looking diversion with all the mental and spiritual nutritional value of a Twinkie. The only thing that opened my mind during the interminable 138 minutes was reconciling the fact that Jessica Chastain was not Bryce Dallas Howard--really, look at them; it's spooky.

This movie seriously pissed me off. I'm a sucker for big-idea pictures, and am not one of these ADD mutants who needs everything spelled out for them in a steady flow of action. But there's a big difference between The Tree of Life, which thinks it has something to say, and films like Enter the Void and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pack every frame and every curious shot with multiple meanings that can be discerned by watching the films themselves; it's not necessary to read synopses and watch actor interviews to find out what you're supposed to get out of the experience. The Tree of Life is about as accessible and important as a Calvin Klein "Eternity" commercial, and a thousand times longer.

Monday
Jun202011

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.