At a recent gig at a New York ad agency, I sat with a 26-year-old creative producer and a 45-year-old director as they pulled the most appealing footage in American popular culture for a spot intended for teens. The evolution of cool, according to the crowd-pleasing mandate of the selling industry, included: Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss, James Dean in a cowboy hat, Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips and windmilling arms, JFK, and MLK. This is the burnished iconography that telegraphs Americana: permissive women, dissatisfied men, the promise of an open road. At the heart of this mythology is self-invention. A rise from obscurity to empire—or its obverse, picking up and dropping out, defying the impetus of capitalism—chases that New World fantasy of boundlessness.
The cocaine-dealing, acid-dropping motorcyclists in Easy Rider were also on that wishlist. The ideals and imagery of Easy Rider remain potent – not one of us was part of the original audience for that film, but the trajectory of its creator (Dennis Hopper) and his fellow actors (Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) remain the bellwether for any aspirant to counter-culture. Their attitude remains appealingly defiant, boyishly insurgent. There’s something about riding cross-country on a motorcycle that says you’re going your own way.
The hero of Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, David Howard, is a mid-career adman equally enamored of Dennis Hopper’s dropouts, and the spirit of these post-industrial cowboys informs David’s journey. At the start of the film, though, David doesn’t plan to emulate his idols. He’s chasing a middle class ideal: power job, bigger house, better car, swelling nest egg. It’s life based on a predicative outcome; so far, its biggest yield is anxiety.
David, sleepless, mulls his anticipated leap to vice president at his agency, and he wakes his wife, Linda, to tally up his prospects. He’s put in his time, he’s invested his creative energies—and, what’s more, he has received promises from upper management. But any adman should know: the world is not a meritocracy. Advancement, small or large, is a carnival workers’s magic act, effective to the extent that one is persuasive, based on the cult of personality and the power of a story.
Lost In America is not a depiction of the ad agency world in the 1980s, but a picture of being middle class during that period. Brooks selected the profession because it was a job that made his character’s outbursts and behaviors credible. David Howard is a creative director, so he has proven ability to spin an idea and to win over an audience. More importantly, he is a company man, and therefore susceptible to the rhetoric of advertising: when it works, it works like a cliché, and obviates thinking.
Born Albert Lawrence Einstein, Albert Brooks is a performer who is preoccupied with competition: his antecedents and his contemporaries. In Lost In America, Brooks namechecks what he seems to idolize: not just Easy Rider, but Easy Money and Rodney Dangerfield, and that other wildly successful comic Brooks, Mel.
Albert Brooks’s ambition was to become an actor, not a comedian, and that distinction is informative. As a writer-director-performer whose emotional palette runs from grasping to grouchy, Brooks suffers in his frequent comparison to Woody Allen, a comic performer who succeeded in similar genres and roles. What Brooks could do capably, Allen could achieve effortlessly and with brilliance. You wouldn’t know that contemporaneous Woody Allen was cool until you juxtaposed the two comedians. Both men hit the same notes—they whine and seek reassurance—but only one of them really needs the approval, and that’s Albert Brooks. Allen might pantomime nervousness, but it’s a facile manipulation, for better and for worse. Indifference is an eternal component of cool, and Allen is markedly removed from his need for public approval. Brooks is Nixon to Woody Allen’s JFK.
While Allen might seem Brooks’s obvious competition, Brooks clarifies in an interview with Adam Carolla that his earliest rival was most often Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl). After losing a number of roles to the Oscar winner, Brooks was encouraged to build a career as a stand up in order to gain a television and film audience. His sketch work was childlike and character-based: he was the mime who talked; an inventor of an “Impersonation Kit” bit on the Johnny Carson show where he uses household objects to prompt celebrity impressions; various aspirants in “National Anthem auditions,” obviously inspired by tussles with the real-life audition experience.
With this grounding in the comedian’s skillset, from stand up to sketch comedy to narrative filmmaking, Albert Brooks knows what’s legal and what’s not in the land of artifice. There are rules to storytelling; there’s a cheap way to do things and then there’s a cheating way to do them (a reliance on exposition, for example, to convey information—or on explosions, to generate interest). In construction and in performance, Brooks is a craftsman. He is not the soft-shoe, broadly jokey, crowd-pleaser who is that other Brooks (Mel). Instead, he grounds a character with realism. In his work, Albert Brooks calls the bluff of many American comedian-actors, who coast on punchlines or a persona to reassure the audience that, no matter the predicament, they’re top dog. Despite the gentle whimsy, Brooks’s comedy is marked by its lack of consolation.
Movies from the 80s liked a high-concept take on the period’s social issues. In Gung Ho, Japanese and American car companies must confront cultural differences and work together; in Baby Boom, a career woman inherits a baby and has to reexamine her assumptions about motherhood. Lost In America poses a question of class: what if a young, upwardly mobile couple drops out and takes up an outdated counter-culture lifestyle? When David loses his promotion to a younger, newer executive, he is offered a lateral move to a position in New York. This deviation from his plan is enough to disrupt the vectors of the Howards’ projected lives, together and separately. Is the job placement an oversight or a slight? Is Brooks good at his work but overlooked, or is he merely adequate, and hasn’t yet comprehended his shortcomings? These are the dilemmas of middle age: watching where growth tapers off or halts; finding a response to an abruptly foreshortened horizon.
Because Lost In America is an Albert Brooks film, his hero David occupies the binary stance of relentless self-loathing and insistent self-worth. In effect, Howard doesn’t get what he wants and throws a tantrum, behaving badly enough to ensure that his boss fires him. Brooks’ approach to his conflict is broad farce—once the Howards drop out, they buy a whale-sized Winnebago and then navigate the boxy gas guzzler from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where Linda loses all their money.
(Let’s acknowledge that Vegas is the locus of misjudgment in America. Britney Spears married her high school sweetheart here for 55 hours to know what being married felt like. This is a Las Vegas decision, which is less about risk than unchecked impulse.)
When the couple arrives at a chapel to renew their vows, Linda hesitates. “Let’s stay in a honeymoon suite and wait until dawn,” she urges David, who ineffectively bribes their way into a downmarket bridal suite with twin beds and a stall shower. David falls asleep and wakes to his first surprise about his eminently reasonable wife: she is, with little precedent, addicted to gambling. David, who continues to believe in logic above all things, explains again and again the meaning of a nest egg, believing if Linda understood she wouldn’t have let it go. Then, in his bathrobe, David pitches to the casino boss (played by Gary Marshall) that the best marketing move for the casino is to refund the couple’s lost money.
Julie Hagerty has been working steadily since her debut in Airplane! As Linda, her guilelessness is so steady and thorough you wish she had been a romantic lead in more films. Why didn’t Hagerty get Meg Ryan’s career from 1987 until 1999? Her Linda is adorable without being cute, a charm has everything to do with a lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera. She has a genuine pipsqueak voice and unblinking Betty Boop eyes and is the perfect straight woman to Brooks’s whiny neuroses. Linda, it turns out, has been having her own anxieties about the domesticity that the Howards have settled on, and she cements their expulsion from the American middle class by making them bankrupt.
Only people who haven’t experienced crippling need could throw away advantages so blithely. Dropping out suggests assurance in your own resources. It connotes not just sufficiency, but overabundance. Other generations had no choice about their compromises.
Anxiety, David’s hallmark, is the product of uncertainty but also of hope. His is a conflict of the 1980s, when after a long recession, there was an itch to think about ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ along with an urge for middle-class stability. The Americans that David and Linda meet on the road don’t suffer the same doubts, because they aren’t gifted with the same opportunities. Does being poor make you honest? No, it just means you have fewer comforts and fewer options. And maybe this is all to say that Lost In America, with its very different and tempered resolution (in which David and Linda long to reclaim their much-interrogated status quo), teaches the same lessons that Easy Rider does more darkly: freedom and itinerancy demand a heavy price, and maybe that’s too terrible to bear.
A soft sell for normalcy, the sweet spot for Albert Brooks, begins to look like a happy ending.