This might sound hard to believe, but the notion that Americans all live in hermetic, deluded bubbles defined by their own narrow experiences existed long before anyone ever heard of social media. In the final act of the 1985 comedy Lost in America, a beleaguered yuppie named David Howard (Albert Brooks) finally gives up on his dream of quitting his job and traveling the country free of responsibilities, and walks over to the local employment office of Safford, Arizona, the sparsely populated town he’s found himself in. He defends his decision to walk away from his previous job (advertising executive) and salary (about $100,000 a year), telling the incredulous clerk, “I’ve come here to live. I’ve come to change my life.” The clerk stifles a laugh. “You couldn’t change it on $100,000?” he asks.
Lost in America, released Tuesday on Blu-ray in a shiny new Criterion Collection edition, is Brooks’s masterpiece of Reagan-era mockery, one that’s more caustic than his later comedies (Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse) and more empathetic than his earlier ones (Real Life, Modern Romance). The plot is simple: David, passed up for a promotion, quits his job and encourages his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) to do the same. They then buy a Winnebago, divest themselves of their property, and endeavor to see the country in a fresh way, to “touch Indians,” as David repeatedly puts it, one of his many tin-eared summations of his new life.
This still feels like a typical fantasy of the moneyed class: to dash one’s boring, predictable existence earning a solid wage and go find oneself, to get in touch with all of America rather than whatever city you’ve chosen as your gilded cage. Lost in America undercuts that foolishness not with the kind of broad comedy you’d expect: There’s no scene where David and Linda encounter some aggressive, slack-jawed yokels, no patronizing humor aimed at the “real America” they’re seeking to travel through. The rest of the country is just like them, deeply mediocre. What sets David and Linda apart is their naive belief that they can change that, something Brooks sees as entirely futile.
Brooks has long been America’s most pessimistic comedian, the one who’s least interested in having his audiences learn an easy lesson. His most upbeat conclusion to a film probably comes in 1991’s Defending Your Life, in which the central couple that finally gets together is already dead (that film is set in the afterlife). This bleak approach is perhaps why Brooks never quite rose above cult status through his most fertile creative period (the ’80s and early ’90s). There are elements of his nervy, neurotic characters in the oeuvres of so many comic giants working in cinema and television today—Judd Apatow, Dan Harmon, Lena Dunham, and Louis C.K. come to mind. But watch a Brooks movie today and you’ll marvel at his lack of gimmickry, his joy at wringing laughs from straightforward, repetitive dialogue, and his refusal to give his narratives a happy ending.
Brooks understands that the Reaganite mores he’s poking at speaks to a larger, nationwide existential crisis. Like so many others in his generation, David has achieved apparent success yet derives no pleasure from it. He’s thus maniacal about everything he sets himself to, be it the promotion he ends up not getting (which sparks a hilarious, minutes-long tantrum, perfectly played by Brooks) or the particular ways in which he plans on relaxing once he’s quit his job. “I’m insane and responsible. This is a potent combination,” he warns Linda, who is trapped in her own oppressive stasis.
Linda’s boredom spins into chaos during a pit stop at Las Vegas, where she gambles away the couple’s entire $180,000 nest egg at the roulette table in a night. If Lost in America has a high-concept set piece, it’s this: David waking up, going downstairs to the casino in horror, and being taken aside by the manager (a superb Garry Marshall) and told he’s now flat broke. This comes 40 minutes into the movie and 10 minutes into the couple’s planned cross-country trip, completely blowing up the film’s conventional-seeming narrative and never rebuilding it. When confronted, Linda can’t explain her actions, only saying that she, too, had something eating away at her inside.
Lost in America resists being a cloying fantasy of two rich Americans getting in touch with a different way of life and changing their outlook. Everything after this early disaster is a scramble: David and Linda constantly fight (with David’s “nest egg” rant a thrilling high point), they break up only to quickly reunite after Linda hitches a ride with an ex-convict, and they end up in a trailer park in Arizona, where Linda takes a job at the local Der Wienerschnitzel while David is tormented by teens as a minimum-wage crossing guard. The film is funny, of course, but not loudly so—there are no silly chase sequences, no explicit sexual escapades, nothing that feels geared toward standing out in a trailer or on a poster.
No, the ultimate joke is on viewers who might scoff at David’s foolishness while nursing similar anxieties about the possibility of finding fulfillment. Indeed, Brooks sneaks in a little poke at the crowd by opening the film with an overheard radio interview of the legendary critic Rex Reed, who complains about the laugh-out-loud mob mentality of a comedy-movie audience. Chuckle all you want, Brooks is saying—but that doesn’t mean you’re too different from his protagonist. After just weeks on the road, David and Linda resolve to fix their new crisis (a lack of money) by begging for their old jobs back, and it works, though their salaries are slightly reduced. That’s what amounts to a (relatively) happy ending for Brooks: a depressing return to the status quo.