Lost in America (1985, dir. Albert Brooks)
The planning of a forthcoming family road trip has put me in mind of one of the great comedies of the last 50 years, Lost in America, Albert Brooks’ ode to jumping off the career train, parting with one’s material trappings and basically dropping out of society “like in Easy Rider.” Of course, this being an Albert Brooks movie, things quickly devolve into self-inflicted chaos.
If you haven’t yet seen this film I both pity and envy you, the former because you’ve lived much (or all) of your life without being familiar with, among other things, “Mercedes leather,” “touching Indians,” the “nest-egg principle” and the “$100,000-dollar box,” concepts that have profoundly affected the day-to-day existence of The Conflicted Film Snob, the latter because, if you take my very strong hint that you need to check out this movie, you’ll discover with fresh eyes the comedic joys of, among other things, “Mercedes leather,” “touching Indians,” the “nest-egg principle” and the “$100,000-dollar box.”
The film opens with David and Linda Howard (Brooks, not only co-starring and directing but also writing, and Julie Hagerty) lying in bed on the eve of two very fraught personal/professional developments: the couple’s move to a new house and David’s expected promotion to senior vice president at the advertising agency he’s worked at for eight years. David, unable to sleep, voices second thoughts about their need for a bigger home. (“We could’ve rented a locker.”)
Not only is the new house the right call, Linda reassures him, but he’s a shoo-in for the promotion, which she (rightly) suspects is what’s really bothering him. (“You’ll get the promotion, we’ll move into the new house and we’ll be happy, OK?”) Secretly, she harbors doubts, which she reveals to a co-worker the next morning. She doesn’t like the new house, her life, what they’ve become as a couple…anything, for that matter. (“Nothing’s changing. I’m not. David’s not. We’ve just stopped. Life’s just going by.”)
For the moment, at least, David is less haunted by such metaphysical ennui — while awaiting his boss’ summons to discuss the promotion, he makes a call from his office to the Mercedes-Benz dealership he’s been working with to choose a new car, a scene that so effectively demonstrates Brooks’ unique comedic writing talents:
OK. Listen, I’m closing in on a decision…
(vaguely Germanic accent, fast, impatient, distracted)
…I think the beige is the best interior.
And I think with the brown that’s the
That’s the most beautiful combination
on the lot!
So tell me again everything — tax, license,
out the door, in my garage.
Well, I don’t know where your garage is,
but it’s $44,420.
It’s a lot of money for a car, isn’t it?
It’s not a car, Mr. Howard, it’s a
Mercedes and that’s the difference.
Well, I know it’s a Mercedes but it’s
still just a lot of money.
Well, maybe you shouldn’t buy the
car then, get a Nova.
(ignoring the jab)
Now, there’s no extras, right? That’s it.
That’s everything. I don’t imagine at that
price I’d have to add.
No. Just leather. That’s all you’d have to
add, nothing else.
Well, what’s in there then?
It’s what they call ‘Mercedes leather’.
What would that be?
Well, it a very thick vinyl. A beautiful
seat. I would prefer that.
Gee, isn’t that something? Wouldn’t you
think there’d be leather in there?
I’ll tell you what. If you buy the car I’ll
put some shoes in it, OK?
David puts Hans on hold; his secretary has informed him it’s time for the meeting in which he’ll finally reap the fruits of his eight years of labor. Senior Vice President! Equity in the agency! After some initial pleasantries, however, he’s told by his boss that, instead of the senior vice president job (which has gone to Phil Shabano), he’s being transferred to the New York city office to work on the agency’s largest and newest client, Ford. While his boss thinks this is an incredible professional opportunity (“My God, I thought you’d be thrilled”), David is not in the least pleased, noting that he’s been at the company much longer than Phil Shabano:
Quite frankly, he’s [Shabano] not as clever
as you. He’s more of an executive type. I
need you creatively.
(starting to lose it)
Oh, well that explains it then. So by being
extra clever and being here longer I get
shifted to just another account and he,
because of his low intelligent and short
time with the company, gets the job I’ve
been waiting my whole life for!
It gets worse from there, David working himself into a lather of indignation, digging himself a deeper (“No listen, I must get what I deserve!”) and deeper (“Fuck you!”) and deeper (“Oh, and by the way, our hairpiece secret is off!”) hole.
Suddenly finding himself unemployed, David rushes to his wife’s place of work (I. Magnin, where she’s the hiring manager) and begs her to quit so the two of them can drop out of society, finally be free of all the professional bullshit. (“We have to touch Indians; we have to see the mountains and the prairies and the whole rest of that song!”) Linda, seeing right through his borderline psychotic enthusiasm, asks who was made senior vice president.
David brushes off the question, saying he doesn’t care, that he’s through caring about stuff like that, but then he brakes down and tells her it’s that “underqualifited son of a bitch” Phil Shabano. (“Because life isn’t fair. But you know what’ll happen? It’ll balance out. [Shabano will] buy that boat I’ve had to look at in that stupid catalog for three years and he’ll crash in Catalina and die and seals will eat him!”)
That evening David and Linda sit down to crunch numbers. Turns out that if they pull out of their new house and liquidate every possession, they’ll have $190,000 cash on which to live the rest of their lives, $145,000 after subtracting the cost of their sweet new RV. (“Thirty feet long, a bedroom, a bath, a kitchen, a microwave that browns, a little TV!”)
At their going away party David announces to the room that, to kick off their adventure, they’ll first stop in Vegas to reaffirm their wedding vows.
Thus begins their travails.
I won’t go into details other than to note that they involve, among other things and in no particular order:
- A visit to the Hoover Dam (“You want to go first or should I?”)
- Skippy, the teenaged manager of a hot dog stand
- A failed pitch for “The boldest experiment in advertising history.”
- A hotel room with dual heart-shaped beds (“If Liberace had children this would be their room.”)
- An encounter with the very Mercedes Brooks considered buying at the beginning of the movie
- A job interview with multiple and humiliating references to the “$100,000 box.”
- And, of course, this brilliant tutorial on the concept of the “nest egg”:
Oh, God, I guess this was my fault, that’s
what I’m thinking. Maybe I just didn’t
explain the nest egg well enough. It’s a very
sacred thing, the nest egg. And if you
would’ve understood the ‘nest egg principle’
as we will now call it in the first of many
lectures that you will have to get. Because
if we are ever to acquire another nest egg
we both have to understand what it means.
The nest egg is a protector, like a god, and
we sit under the nest egg and we are
protected by it. Without it, no protection.
Want me to go on? It pours rain — hey, the
rain dropson the egg and falls on the side!
I understand the nest egg.
Do me a favor — don’t use that word. You
may not use that word! It’s off-limits to you!
Only those in this house who understand
the nest egg may use it. And don’t use any
part of it, either. Don’t use nest, don’t use
egg. If you’re out in the forest you can point
to that bird that lives in a round stick. And,
and, and…you have things over easy with toast!
Truly comedic gold. Albert Brooks has never been funnier. Or sharper in his social commentary on yuppies, self-fulfillment, money, employment, etc.
Better yet, the film is now available in a Criterion collection bluray! Check it out.
Here’s the trailer: