Albert Brooks’ Lost in America sums up its decade and Brooks’ career. This writer/director/actor had been building towards Lost in America for years, and he made it, and he has more or less been reiterating it — often amusingly — ever since. It is, I think, his masterpiece — nothing inessential, one great scene after another, just flat-out perfect. Stanley Kubrick was an Albert Brooks fan for a reason.
Brooks’ David Howard lies in bed, squirming with anxiety and anticipation, the night before getting a promotion. At least, he thinks he’s getting a promotion; he and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) have put a down payment on a $450,000 house and have most of their stuff packed up to move. Everything in David’s very being points towards getting promoted to senior vice president at his advertising agency. He’s been there eight years. He deserves it. He’s worked hard for it. He’s the best, cleverest ad man at the agency. So of course the position goes to some corporate drone who’s been there two years.
David’s response to this is the first of many spectacular duets Brooks plays with the many straight men (or women) in the cast. That Brooks’ performance is comedic in no way disqualifies it as great. David’s apoplexy at being shunted off to New York to work under some guy named Brad (“Shut up, Brad. Your song stunk, I hate your suit and I could hurt you”) is completely organic and believable, even though the job he’s pooh-poohing would be the envy of most people — in 1985 and certainly now. It’s not the money; it’s the title. Before this meeting, David’s phone parrying with a Mercedes dealer, wherein we learn the difference between leather and Mercedes leather, clues us in. David isn’t into status for its own sake, or materialism or careerism; his whole frazzled, insecure personality is wired into this system, and he wants it so desperately we can’t not feel for him. In Lost in America, Brooks takes the much-parodied, much-ridiculed stereotype the yuppie and displays his intestines for our entertainment. But it’s far from a cruel portrait.
Linda, stifling in a personnel-manager gig, feels trapped in her life — in David’s life, in his dreams. When David’s outburst gets him fired, he zips over to Linda’s office and encourages her to chuck everything — to live, with him, the “irresponsible” life she’s been wanting. The joke of the movie is that David hasn’t realized just how much Linda needs to go wild. They buy a Winnebago and hit the road. First stop: Las Vegas, where they intend to get married again. What happens there, as Linda’s id is awakened by the siren song of the casino, leads to one of the greatest scenes in all of American comedy: David sits down with the casino boss (Garry Marshall) and, using every drop of his unctuous idea-man grease, attempts to talk the man into giving back the sizable nest egg Linda has lost at the roulette table. Garry Marshall has made many terrible films, but his entire lucratively schmaltzy filmography as a director is redeemed by this one five-minute performance, as the casino boss squints at David and can’t believe he’s hearing what he’s hearing. And Julie Hagerty, usually typecast by her recessive looks and tremulous voice as a fragile snowflake, shows a ferocious side of Linda that’s a little scary.
At the Hoover Dam — a metaphor Brooks probably couldn’t resist — David and Linda pour out all their resentments. We don’t get any flashbacks to their earlier life together, but Brooks and co-writer Monica Johnson have deftly sketched in just enough. Like many yuppies, they used to be more bohemian, out of financial necessity, before selling out. But Brooks doesn’t indulge in Big Chill pathos here; he understands the soft underbelly of men like David, the ridiculous insecurities, the clutching sense of entitlement — but, like the employment-agency guy in Arizona (“Oh, that must be the $100,000 box”), Brooks can’t help finding it all funny. David never shuts up; he keeps presenting his case to people, imploring them to make an exception for him, David Howard, advertising executive. Eventually one guy just hauls off and punches him. David just can’t help sabotaging himself, and that’s what keeps Lost in America so fresh.
The title itself is amusingly overblown, to match David’s ego — David and Linda get lost in the Southwest, and don’t even see most of America. We don’t see what might be the climax of a lesser film: David’s talking his way back into the job he rejected. At this point, we don’t need to see it — the whole movie has been about a man sweating outside his comfort zone, trying to mold every situation to fit what he knows from his cushy past life, and seeing what a folly that is. He’s probably still in New York today, and he’s probably still not senior vice president.