On 30 Years of “Lost in America”

Who hasn’t thought of the freedom that would come from dropping out — the notion of giving up all the oppressive things in your life and giving yourself over to the open road and the freedom to do literally anything. Fear keeps us from realizing this dream. Fear whispers in your ear and says “You can’t quit your job, what will you do for money?” Fear is quite practical that way. 

But what if you had money? I’m not talking about the dilettantish millions of dollars that would set you for life but merely just enough money where you know that you can get by for a while. Would you be ready to chuck it all and run off in a Winnebago to paint and write books? That’s what Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty’s characters in “Lost in America” had when they decided to chuck it all. What happened next is the rest of a rather unusual movie.

Lost in America

Lost in America

Brooks plays David Howard, a yuppie who is seemingly set for a promotion at his Los Angeles advertising company. When David finds out that not only has he been passed over for a promotion but also he’s being transferred to New York to continue in his current position, he quits his cushy $100,000-per-year job for life on the open road. After convincing his wife Linda that they have just enough money to call it a life, they hit the road. 

Unfortunately, their first idea for a stop on their new life is Las Vegas, where plans to get re-married at an all-night chapel are derailed by Linda’s wont for a night on the town and a bridal suite at the Desert Inn. Linda goes on to lose their entire $150,000 nest egg in a single night at the roulette wheel, and the dreams of a life of painting and writing books are dashed.

The Las Vegas sequence of “Lost in America” features the film’s two funniest scenes. First is Linda’s obsession with the number 22. With a madness that borders on Jim Carrey’s obsession with the “Number 23,” Linda has bet the number 22 on the roulette table for hours before Brooks finds that she has lost all their money. Her maniacal dedication to the number is priceless as is Brooks’ trademark apoplexy.

Lost in America starring Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks

Lost in America starring Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks

This scene is followed by an extended conversation between Brooks and a casino manager played by Garry Marshall. In Marshall’s telling, the scene was shot over and over again, much to his frustration. However, it turned out that Marshall’s growing frustration was what Brooks wanted in the scene. Brooks’ more and more grandiose pitches to get his and his wife’s money back eventually grow to include Santa Claus in one of the bigger laughs in the movie.

That’s not to say that “Lost in America” is a laugh riot. It’s not. What “Lost in America” is, however, is consistently amusing. Brooks has a smarmy charm throughout the film that never fails to help you like him, even as David is rather insufferable. His constant repetition of how he and his wife are dropping out of society is supposed to tell us what a charming rebel he is. But Brooks knows that every time he says it he sounds like more and more of a schmuck, which makes it that much funnier. David is oblivious to his schmuckiness in a charming way.

“Lost in America” repeatedly invokes David’s love for the movie “Easy Rider” as he attempts to explain his and Linda’s noble cross-country quest, and this leads to a wonderful scene for movie lovers. After the couple is stopped for speeding, David launches his spiel about dropping out of society and having no money. Linda then invokes “Easy Rider” and the cop admits that he started riding motorcycles because of that movie. After sharing a few favorite scenes from “Easy Rider” the cop sends his fellow movie lovers off without a ticket.

Easy Rider starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

Easy Rider starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

My favorite thing about “Lost in America” is how it is specifically about David and Linda. The film could be seen as an allegory about playing it safe, because it ends with David begging for and getting his job back in New York. But it’s really about David and Linda as foolishly precocious, flawed, dreamers for whom entitlement has turned to apathy. Realizing that they are stable, responsible adults turned them into irrational fools who quit their jobs not out of a noble purpose, but because David is an overgrown baby who didn’t get what he wanted.

The dream of chucking it all, buying an RV and living off the land is a nice dream that I’m sure most people have had. But for David and Linda the reality of that dream only reveals what they really want, which is to remain spoiled, entitled yuppies with the security of high-paying jobs. The comedy comes in denying them what they really want in favor of a dream that the hippies who loved “Easy Rider” told themselves they wanted until they, too, dropped back into society in the ’70s and ’80s and became lawyers, doctors and advertising executives. 

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