Although not nearly as bitter, and certainly not as wild or as messy as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the conclusion of Albert Brooks’ 1985 comedy Lost in America (now available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray) is very much the same as Hunter Thompson’s 1971 paean to excess: That the hippie generation, once optimistic and youthful and free, was doomed from the start.
In Thompson’s version of America, Nixon’s conservatism revealed the real dark heart of the American body, and Thompson enacted a future wherein Baby Boomers were definitely going to fall into a pit of drug-fueled self-destruction; the idealism was going to be eroded away by the squares, and only the drugs remained. In Brooks’ version, Lost in America, the conservatism of Reagan revealed the dark, shallow, neurotic hearts of the hippies themselves. After so many years, the Baby Boomer would inevitably discover, one can no longer live the life of drugs and optimism, and now the slowly encroaching monster of American laissez-faire capitalism was to be the agent of erosion. If you were a hippie before, darkness will consume you. You’re a yuppie now. And your old version of the American Dream is definitely, definitely no longer attainable.
Oh yes, and Lost in America is a comedy. And a hilarious one at that.
The main characters in Lost in America, David and Linda Howard (Brooks and Julie Hagerty), are the most relatable people in the world, and also the blandest people you could hope to meet. Their greatest worries are their jobs and their status, and they hate they have to spend so much time devoted to it. They have reached that most dreaded of states: comfort. But they have no real dreams or texture beyond their comfort, so they are both at a social impasse. They are Baby Boomers all grown up, long ago having forgotten their youth.
When David loses a promotion he, in a rare fit of outrage, quits his job. He then convinces Linda to quit hers as well so they can finally, finally live the American Dream once sold to them by Easy Rider: To take to the open road and live a Spartan life of freedom. What “freedom” means to these two is something they probably haven’t sussed out too far. They know they just need books, a fire, and food. They buy a Winnebago, take to the road, and immediately get stuck in Vegas when Linda recklessly gambles away their nest egg of traveling cash. Oops.
The hilarious, dark realization of Lost in America is that all those fantasies about living on the open road just aren’t practical. There’s a fine line between heroic drifter and broke, miserable hobo. Brooks explodes the Kerouac fantasy by depicting two of the most uptight, urban people in the world trying to live it out. There is no natural rebellion in these people’s hearts. No poetry. David and Linda are the opposite of what the Baby Boomers wanted to be in the 1960s. And they know it. And they feel bad that they’re kind of okay with that.
Rebellion, Brooks argues, is gone from Boomers’ hearts. When he quits his job, it’s not because of some ethical or moral outrage. Nor is he fired because he’s ill-suited for advertising. He quits because he doesn’t want to have to move to New York. This is a mere inconvenience for a yuppie like him. His outrage is, as we would call it today, a first world problem. His problem is not that he’s struggling or unsuccessful. He’s just not quite successful enough. That this minor, neurotic outrage sparks a deep self-examination is, well, pretty damn funny.
Albert Brooks has long been a comedian who keenly deconstructs expectations with witty banter and a long string of nervous, anxious people who are eternally unsure of themselves. His characters are, he keenly acknowledges, kind of spoiled by modern society, and their problems are rarely problems at all. Brooks seems intent on taking vapid, modern yuppies to task for their own lack of resilience. His ultimate statement on the matter remains Defending Your Life, but Lost in America is no less sharp or funny, and is certainly one of the better satires of the 1980s one may find.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.