Albert Brooks’s Lost in America opens on a shot of a suburban house with a “For Sale” sign in the frontyard. Then we’re inside the living room, which is rife with stacked boxes and the bric-a-brac that’s uprooted when a family moves. Brooks lingers on a shot of the boxes for an uncomfortably prolonged amount of time, informing the image with an absurdist power. It suddenly seems ridiculous for anyone to move with all this stuff in tow, and we feel the burden of these objects. As the filmmaker leads the audience toward the back of the house, stopping to examine the despairing arrangements of common household objects, the opening credits run while an interview with Larry King and film critic Rex Reed is heard on the soundtrack. We listen as Reed yearns for common decency to return to movies and extols the virtues of the film version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
This sequence, roughly two minutes in length, is a succinct tonal preparation for the film that follows. It also serves as a reminder that Brooks is greatly undervalued as a formalist, as he’s one of the shrewdest, most economical, and distinctive of American comic auteurs. There isn’t an ounce of fat on Brooks’s films, which revel in a compressed tension that emphasizes what’s not said as much as what is. Brooks favors a mixture of droll master shots and medium shots in which actors move with often ludicrous decisiveness, providing the compositions with their physical brushstrokes. There’s an element of Jacques Tati in Brooks’s aesthetic, and there’s a significant strand of Stanley Kubrick, particularly in Lost in America’s early office sequences, in which employees of an advertising company navigate hallways as chilly and sterile as those in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Released in 1985, Lost in America is a Reagan-era film that’s uncomfortable with our dependence on advertising and material possessions and with our fealty to the notion of actualizing ourselves with professional success. David Howard (Brooks) feels that he will have “made it” once he’s promoted to senior vice president of the advertising firm that employs him, though his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), reminds him of the other promotions that were supposedly going to change their lives. David and Linda are intelligent, sensitive people who know they’ve settled for a posh McLife, buying more and more things in search of an affirmation of individuality that can’t be found in a catalogue or a Mercedes dealership.
Brooks finds the subtext of a scene, explodes it, and moves on before we’ve had a chance to digest his startling observations. As uproarious as Lost in America frequently is, it’s also driven by the visceral terror of financial collapse, and Brooks allows the comedy to evolve into an acknowledgement of barely latent violence. This control of tone is most obvious in three of the film’s best scenes: when David is passed over for a promotion; when Linda loses their entire “nest egg” while gambling in Las Vegas; and when David pleas to the casino manager (director Garry Marshall in a superb cameo) to return their lost money, masking his panic as a sales pitch.
These scenes pivot on the sort of escalating hysteria at which Gene Wilder excelled. David’s standoff with his boss, Paul Dunn (Michael Greene), is a miniature portrait of the dwarfed ambition and resentment that hounds many in the conventional working world. David thinks his promotion is a gimme, hilariously rehearsing phrases such as “that’s more” in the mirror before the meeting. David is passed over, of course, morphing with disconcerting speed from sycophant to a man telling his boss to go fuck himself. The soul-sickness in Brooks’s delivery of these lines, the stifling frustration with a system that’s been quite good to his character yet never takes him anywhere, is revelatory. David decides that he wants to “drop out” of society like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s characters in Easy Rider, and by drop out he means buying a motor home that keeps him and Linda ensconced in a capitalist cocoon.
Linda’s meltdown at the casino parallels David’s botched professional meeting. In essence, Linda is calling David out on his hypocrisy. If you want to drop out, you must be willing to throw everything into the wind. Linda’s determination to win at roulette, which ends up costing the couple hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours, is frightening and poignant. Linda chants her presumed lucky roulette number, “22,” over and over, which Hagerty utters with a hypnotic zeal that distills capitalist fantasies of overnight wealth down to their hard and ludicrous essence.
Most Americans are nourished by capitalism, in terms of the comfort it insidiously provides and the sense of reward it triggers when we measure up to its demands, which Baby Boomers discovered when their revolution came to zilch. What could this intangible “freedom,” for which we’re conditioned to resent ourselves for not achieving, offer that’s comparable? Even the bikers of Easy Rider were hypocrites, hoping to retire on their own “nest egg” of coke. Lost in America is resonant because it doesn’t superficially indict David and Linda, rewarding our unearned feelings of superiority. Brooks criticizes yet empathizes with the couple’s yearning to prove that they aren’t simply puppets on a corporate stage, and, in its way, this film is as searching and searing an exploration of a relationship in crisis as any that Ingmar Bergman produced. David and Linda are automatons who ironically achieve individuality by embracing conformity.
Per the liner notes in the Blu-ray’s packaging, "this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from a new 35 mm interpositive made from the original camera negative." The resulting image is softer and grittier than one might conventionally expect from a Criterion Collection restoration of a modernish film, though this is in keeping with Lost in America’s stripped-down, somewhat docudramatic aesthetic. The image is cleaner and more robust than ever before, and flesh tones have been dramatically improved. A newfound clarity in the picture also emphasizes the conceptual rigorousness of the compositions, particularly their strong through lines and comic sense of symmetry. Colors also have a lush vibrancy, most clearly the primary hues of the casino that alters the fates of the heroes. The monaural mix is clear and mixed with a subtlety that honors the crisp precision of the actors’ line deliveries, as well as the immersive sounds of the settings.
The four interviews included here, all recorded for this edition in 2017, cover various strands of Albert Brooks's working methods. Talking with filmmaker Robert Weide, Brooks discusses how he works out a script by performing all the parts into a recorder, a method at which co-writer Monica Johnson was unusually adept. Brooks also remembers his many appearances on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, and how his mother would always ask what Johnny thought of his performance. In this interview, there's also telling footage of a career-making Brooks sketch concerning "the worst ventriloquist in the world," who sings while trying to get his dummy to drink water—an absurdist punchline that anticipates many of the classic routines in Brooks's cinema. Julie Hagerty provides a co-star's perspective on working with Brooks, recalling how he liked to film scenes up to a certain point and then start from the beginning of the sequence without any warning. Producer Herb Nanas has also worked with his share of legends, helping to jump-start Sylvester Stallone's career not long after meeting Brooks through George Shapiro. Nanas provides a glimpse into the comic world to which Brooks belongs, and the interview with filmmaker James L. Brooks, a legend in his own right, provides further social context as well as a piercing analysis of his friend as both an actor and director. These interviews are too short for this Brooks fan's tastes, though an essay by film critic Scott Tobias offers a perceptive and complementing consideration of Lost in America's place in Brooks's career, and the theatrical trailer rounds out the package.
The supplements are a little on the sparse side, but Criterion’s restoration of Lost in America is important for rightfully contextualizing the film as an American masterpiece.