Lost in America is a wonderful time capsule of a period in American history where people who had it the best but thought they needed more. Directed and co-written by Albert Brooks who also plays the protagonist David Howard, it’s a look at Baby Boomer yuppies who aren’t happy but for separate reasons.
David and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) live in the Los Angeles suburbs and as the movie opens, their house is stacked with boxes. They’re planning on moving into a new house as David, who works at a marketing and advertising company, expects a bigger promotion to senior vice president. He works in a nice office with a view while Linda works in personnel in a department store backroom. Yet, David makes good money at about $100,000 with bonus (which in today’s dollars is well over a quarter of a million dollars.)
However, they’re depressed. They’re 30-something yuppies with no kids, too much materialsm and too much frustration over their lives. As Linda tells a co-worker, David always thinks every promotion is going to make things better but it doesn’t. And David is already trying to get a Mercedes with leather for a lesser price.
However, David goes into a meeting with his boss, Paul Dunn (Michael Greene), thinking it’s to get the new promotion. But he wants David to move to New York City to work on an account they’ve acquired with the Ford Motor Company to work with fellow New Yorker Brad Tooley (Tom Tarpey) who’s created a jingle using Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” But David gets mad and insults both of them leading to him eventually getting fired, but David explains he quits.
He goes and tries to coerce Linda in quitting but she still finishes the day and they talk about moving east to Conneticut. But David “wants to touch Indians” as he’s been inspired by Easy Rider and wants to find himself. So, they decide to liguidate their assets and buy a Winnebago 30-foot long motor home and cruise around America with well over $100,000 as a nest egg.
But David gets the idea of going to Las Vegas, Nev. so he and Linda can renew their wedding vows. However, they arrive at night and Linda wants to do it in the morning. And she doesn’t want to camp out in the motor home but get a hotel room. So, they go to the Desert Inn where David ends up falling asleep while Linda goes down to the roulette tables and blows all but $802 of the money.
This leads to a funny exchange between David and a casino manager (played perfectly by the late Garry K. Marshall) where David tries to convince him for the casino to give back all the money they lost as a public relations campaign. But the manager says that’s not what they do. And you can just see the frustration on the manager grow. Brooks actually kept doing take after take to intentionally make Marshall (a director himself) more frustrated and it shows with his Bronx accent perfectly used.
Broke, angry and unsure of what to do next, David and Linda visit the Hoover Dam where he unloads his anger on her talking about the “Nest Egg Principle” saying she can’t use the words “nest” nor “egg” ever again. And then wants her to write out “I lost the nest egg” over and over. After a fight and an altercation with an ex-convict (Donald Gibb in a nice small role), they make up but decide to stop in Safford, Ariz., where he says, “Let’s live here.”
The irony that they don’t even last a week on their new life adventure is part of what makes this movie so great. Brooks often does movies about selfish people. Take Real Life where he played a fictional version of himself documenting a Phoenix family where the head of household is a veterinarian played by Charles Grodin. He initially loses interest in the family and cares more how it can affect his life. In Modern Romance, he played a film editor who keeps ruining his relationship because he’s too focus on his own ego and self.
And David is no different. He tells a man he who works at an unemployment office he dropped out of society to change his life. But when the worker hears his salary, he says, “You couldn’t change your life on $100,000 a year?” You can see a lot of David and Linda in our current crop of Baby Boomers, now in the autumn of their years, not seeing that times have changed. Or take all the people in the suburbs talking about being persecuted by the tyranny of government live in homes that are mortgage at at least $250,000 and drive fairly expensive cars.
The term “lost” in the title is both literal and figurative. With little money, they basically have to live where they can like so many people. I never will forget a story I heard of why one family had “moved” to the town in which I grew up in northwest Georgia. When asked why they chose the area, they said that’s where their car died on them. In less than a month, David and Linda went from having a nice house in L.A. to stranded in small-town Arizona. I’m reminded of all these doomsday preppers who talk about the end of civilization but during the harsh winter of 2021 found themselves unable to make it two weeks when the power grids failed.
I think a lot of people are like David and Linda. When things are good, they don’t see how good it is. They want more. But when things are bad, they really don’t know what to do. And as Linda points out, when you drop out of society, you drop out with nothing. But as David reminds her Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had drug money in Easy Rider. They had a nest egg too. People talk about living off the grid but you really do have to live off the grid. David is one of those people you used to go to school with who always wanted to let everyone know he didn’t listen to the popular music of the time.
It should be noted that most of Lost was filmed on location with only three days spent on sound stages. This actually wasn’t such a good idea. The entire cast and crew of 30 people were reportedly crammed into two Winnebagos and staying overnight in cheap motels. “We got as far as Phoenix, Ariz., before everyone stopped talking to each other,” Brooks later said.
However, it did lead to Brooks being cast as a gangster in the 2011 critically acclaimed crime thriller Drive for his anger scene at the Hoover Dam.
What do you think? Please comment.