Albert Brooks’ ‘Lost in America’ Remains Piercingly Relevant 32 Years Later

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by John Powers

Newly released on DVD and Blu-ray, the 1985 film follows a well-heeled LA couple who decide to become free-spirited wanderers. Critic John Powers says Lost In America is a comedy for the ages.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Like Woody Allen before him, Albert Brooks gave up standup comedy to make his own films. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, considers Brooks’s 1985 film “Lost In America” a masterpiece. It’s just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion. “Lost In America” is the story of a well-heeled LA couple, played by Brooks and Julie Haggerty, who decide to become free-spirited wanderers. John just watched it for the umpteenth time and says it’s one of the greatest comedies of the last 40 years.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A lot of comedians are funny. But only a handful have the genius to shape the comic terrain. One of them is Albert Brooks, who, in a cosmic bad joke, is probably best known to today’s audiences as the voice of Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” But back in the early ’70s, in a famous Esquire article and a series of legendary “Tonight Show” performances, Brooks set about gleefully exploding the schticks and traditions of standup comedy.

Making comedy about comedy, he blazed the trail for such later masters of showbiz meta as Steve Martin, David Letterman and Bill Murray. By the late ’70s, Brooks was making movies, starting with three groundbreaking comedies that explored the triumph of modern narcissism in all its cringe-worthy hilarity. The greatest of these is “Lost In America,” just out in in a gorgeous, new package from the Criterion Collection that I highly recommend – but also widely streamable.

Made at the very height of the Reagan years, “Lost In America,” co-written with Monica Johnson, feels as relevant to our selfie-mad times as it did in 1985. Brooks stars as David Howard, an LA ad man who makes “Mad Men’s” Don Draper looks like a figure of Shakespearean grandeur. Living a comfortably middle-class life with his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty, the neurotic David is looking forward to a promotion so he can buy a new Mercedes and get an even bigger house. When the promotion is denied, he quits his job in a huff and bullies Linda into quitting hers. He insists they must sell off everything, hit the road and be free. Here, Linda responds to his idea of getting a mobile home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “LOST IN AMERICA”)

JULIE HAGERTY: (As Linda) Well, what do you think a motor home costs?

ALBERT BROOKS: (As David) Guess who went motor home shopping? My friends – motor homes for sale. Forty-five thousand – complete for a great one. Thirty feet long, a bedroom, a bath, a kitchen, a microwave that browns, a little TV – beautiful, beautiful. Better than our new house – it has wheels, too. OK. Now, that leaves us $145,000 in cash. Now, play devil’s advocate. Can’t you live 20 years on $145,000 if you’re living out of a motor home and just eating and painting and writing books? I mean, this is what we talked about when we were 19. Remember we kept saying let’s find ourselves? Well, we didn’t have a dollar, so we watched television instead. Linda, this is just like “Easy Rider,” except now it’s our turn. I mean, we can drop out, and we can still have our nest egg. I just think that’s unheard of.

POWERS: Before we know it, the two are cruising east in their Winnebago, doing their own cushy version of “Easy Rider.” But when they stopped to get remarried in Las Vegas, all that bursting neon unleashes unforeseen consequences, including a classic encounter between David and a casino boss played by the late Garry Marshall. From that point on, David and Linda find themselves living in a reality far different to the one they imagined and far funnier in part because its stars are so perfectly matched.

Brooks is one of the most majestic ranters and kvetchers is in movie history. And his verbal mania is only fueled by Hagerty’s googly-eyed daffiness. Now, Brooks’s comic approach is unsentimental and often uncomfortable. David may be all too human. Brooks clearly sees something of himself in the guy. But he’s far from lovable. Indeed, pointing the way to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Brooks’s work creates the prototype of the annoyingly selfish hero who stews in anxiety, bad faith and a sense of always being right. When “Lost In America” came out, it was instantly recognized as a trenchant satire of the emerging species known as yuppies, with their materialism, sense of entitlement and unidealistic belief that the world is their oyster.

What was less clear then was that Brooks was also the first filmmaker to capture the essence of bourgeois Bohemianism, the attempt to embrace the cool lifestyle of the rebel while still having money and comfort. That fantasy is alive and kicking among today’s urban strivers, who play vinyl, go glamping and drink artisanal coffee as they try to make their millions. While David and Linda are actually uneasy riders, they don’t know how to change their lives. The road they travel isn’t “Easy Riders” dreamy America, either.

At one point, they have a fight in front of the Hoover Dam. This is partly a visual gag about scale. Their personal squabbling is dwarfed by the dam. But we also sense the gap between the grandeur of this depression-era triumph of the collective spirit and the debased landscape they travel in, with its mini-malls and Der Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurants. If there’s more to America than this, they can’t see it, which isn’t to say that they don’t learn anything from being on the road.

On the contrary, they find out who they really are and how they really want to live. And this self-knowledge leads to a wickedly upbeat ending that includes the greatest gag ever about finding a parking space in Manhattan. David and Linda only stopped being lost in America when they find out that, given the choice, they’d rather be comfortable than free.

Criterion Edition Now Available: The Brutal Cynicism of Lost in America Still Resonates

The Atlantic | link ›
By David Sims

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Albert Brooks’s 1985 satire of two upper-middle-class Californians trying to find themselves is as cutting as ever in its Criterion rerelease.

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.

Chuckle all you want, Brooks is saying—but that doesn’t mean you’re too different from his protagonist.

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.

 

When Reality was a Joke: The Making of Albert Brooks’ Real Life

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By Tom Teicholz

Today, reality TV is a genre for which they award Emmys, from which careers are born, love is found, and fortunes are made. Reality TV represents a huge share of the television industry, and we accept that these shows are cast, produced, and edited to enhance their drama. Yet if we see humor in the self-seriousness of the participants and delight in the outrageousness of their antics, if we see the irony in the genre’s ability to produce stars (and even presidential candidates!) and acknowledge it as part of “show business” — then we’d do well to recall that these insights have already been abundantly elucidated in Albert Brooks’ prescient 1979 debut feature film, Real Life.

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Brooks realized, long before anyone else, that cameras filming real people’s lives would not only affect and change their subjects, but would also affect those making the film. Brooks understood that, in the end, any production was inevitably show biz, and that show biz is a beast which must be fed and whose gravity, like a black hole, sucks up every imaginable cliché and past convention. In other words, this was a subject ripe for the comic intervention of Brooks, whose style was avant-garde and cerebral and rooted in the deconstruction of the creative process and the exploding of classic comedic tropes. Brooks was meta before meta was cool. Continue reading

Exclusive: Albert Brooks films are swimming to Netflix

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By Gary Levin

Albert Brooks may be best known as Marlin, “the adorable clownfish” from Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, or the sweaty reporter from Broadcast News, a role that won him his only Oscar nomination.

But he’s also starred in, written and directed seven often-acclaimed films, all of which will surface on Netflix for the first time starting Friday, where they’ll be available to U.S. subscribers.

Brooks’ output covers a 26-year span from 1979’s Real Life, a spoof of the seminal 1973 PBS reality program An American Family, to 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,  and also included better known titles such as Lost in America, Modern Romance and Defending Your Life, with Meryl Streep, celebrating its 25th anniversary. In many, he plays neurotic characters in showbiz coping with professional or relationship woes.

But until now, the movies have been available only on cable channels or for purchase or rental on iTunes or Amazon Prime Video.

What changed? Though he’s no advocate of kidnapping, Brooks dryly jokes in a promotional video, “picking the right child, from the right executive, had a very good result.” And he’s pleased that a younger generation who may only know his voice from Nemo or Dory, “can now see that I have had a very interesting life out of the water.” (His voice also can be heard in The Secret Life of Pets, out next week).

“Albert Brooks and his films have been a huge influence on American comedy,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer and a big Brooks fan, in a statement. “His innovative early short films and comedy albums led to a body of film work that thrives in the culture and keeps us laughing today. We are proud to have our U.S. Netflix members revisit these great works and to help introduce Brooks’ comedies to the next generation of fans.”

The full slate:

  • Real Life (1979): In his directorial debut, Brooks plays a documentary filmmaker who lives with, and films, a dysfunctional family for an entire year.
  • Modern Romance (1981): Brooks plays a film editor having relationship issues with his patient girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold).
  • Lost in America (1985): A married couple (Brooks, Julie Hagerty), inspired by Easy Rider, quit their jobs, sell their house and set out in their Winnebago to explore the country and re-examine their lives.
  • Defending Your Life (1991): Brooks’ character dies and arrives in the afterlife, where he learns he must stand trial to justify his fears before advancing to the next phase of his existence, or else be sent back to Earth to live it again.
  • Mother (1996): Here he plays a neurotic sci-fi writer, in the midst of his second divorce, who moves in with his mom (Debbie Reynolds) to better understand why his relationships failed.
  • The Muse (1999): Brooks plays a Hollywood screenwriter with a dry spell, so his friend recommends a muse (Sharon Stone) who can inspire him. But she comes at a steep price.
  • Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005): In his most recent effort as writer-director, Brooks is sent by the U.S. government to India and Pakistan to issue a report on what the followers of Islam find funny.

‘Defending Your Life’ at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic

 

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By Jennifer Wood

The funniest man alive on his heavenly film’s 25th anniversary: “I got a letter from a parent who said their kid memorized the whole movie”

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If heaven exists, what would it look like?

It’s one of life’s big questions, and if you believe what you see in the movies, it’s a place full of white fluffy clouds and friendly angels pining for their life back on our Big Blue Marble. But that’s not how Albert Brooks sees it.

Twenty-five years ago — and less than a year after Ghost stormed the box office — Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in Defending Your Life, the story of an ad man who buys himself a Bimmer for his 40th birthday, then promptly drives it into a bus. The bulk of the movie happens in a place called Judgment City, a pleasant enough pit stop for the dearly departed that operates a lot like a Fortune 500 company. Continue reading

Albert Brooks in ‘Concussion’: Another Oscar nomination for a scene-stealing performance?

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While much of the talk about “Concussion” has been about Will Smith’s stand-out performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who first discovered the football-related brain injury CTE, equal attention should be paid to Albert Brooks’ turn as Omalu’s friend and mentor, Dr. Cyril Wecht. The beloved funnyman, who shaved his head for the role, could reap his second Oscar bid almost three decades after contending for “Broadcast News.”

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Q&A Albert Brooks has taken a dramatic turn

Los Angeles Times | link ›

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On a recent balmy day in Santa Monica, Albert Brooks chuckled about the lengths to which he’s gone to reboot his acting career, moving away from the belligerent neurotic of “Broadcast News” fame into playing a believable psychopath in “Drive” and more serious fare in “A Most Violent Year.”

So in your 20s, you trained as a dramatic actor and tried to pursue those roles but got detoured.

I was funny, naturally, and when I left college around 19-20, it was very difficult to get any acting parts at that age, but I was able to get on national television shows just making up comedy in my bathroom. I had an agent who said, “Just do that and you’ll get all the acting roles you want.” … It really didn’t happen that way. I just got further and further into comedy.

Then you started writing your own stuff and for a long time your real focus was making your own films.

When I was making my own movies regularly … that’s sort of all you could do. Because once you started writing and once you raised the money you couldn’t tell the people, “I’m going to stop for two years and go act in this movie.” I still have another idea for a movie I might make, but I have to say, I’ve been enjoying playing different kinds of characters than I’ve played in the past.

And they’re different kinds of roles than you write for yourself.

Absolutely. I wouldn’t write a character in “Drive” for myself. Nor even “A Most Violent Year.” I just finished a movie that’ll be out this year with Will Smith.

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