Albert Brooks is a smart, funny guy. He's a writer, director, actor, comedian and producer, but there's one thing he ain't, and that's Hollywood. He goes years without acting, without making a movie, and he makes films and projects that he is interested in and wants to do. Take 1985's Lost in America, a comedy that grossed $10 million upon its release but has become a cult classic in the 20-plus years since.
Living in Los Angeles with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), 30-something David Howard (Brooks) is living a pretty decent life. He's got a good job at an advertising company, is ready to buy a new house with Linda, and is confident he's about to get a well-deserved promotion and raise. Well, sort of. He is being reassigned to the New York office, and to be honest, David wants nothing to do with it, especially when he finds out a less-qualified co-worker received the promotion. He freaks out and is fired, but it's not all bad. With a nice little nest egg to their name, David convinces Linda to quit her job as they undertake a new adventure; RVing across the country at their own speed, the American dream. Well, that's David's plan at least. Almost immediately, things start to go poorly. Is the couple's dream going up in smoke?
This is an odd comedy to review, and I think 'odd' in a good way. It reminded me of some other classic comedies -- think combination of The Out-of-Towners and National Lampoon's Vacation -- but it's also very much it's own movie. For lack of a better, more specific description, it is a different road movie. At various points in the story, 'Lost' takes some almost bizarre turns. The tone is darkly funny, but there's also that part that is just....well, dark. If anything, I thought it was a little short at just 91 minutes. A whole lot of ground is covered in that somewhat short run-time, but there was a lot of potential for more. Maybe it's just because I liked the movie a lot and wanted to see more, but it felt like the movie was over far too quickly.
Much -- if not all I suppose -- of that intensely dark humor is from star-director-writer Albert Brooks at the helm of just about everything. His humor is different, no doubt about that. It is far from obvious and usually hinges on an audience appreciating his line deliveries or his facial reactions. His humor and laughs are both subtle and underplayed and big and aggressive, but they work both ways. How is that? A really subtle delivery, like his epically perfect scene with casino boss Garry Marshall, could not have been done any better. At the other end of the spectrum is the scene where David is reassigned and flips out. It's not a quiet, subtle response, but instead an explosion. It works though because it isn't aggressively loud. It's a smart explosion. Not Vince Vaughn ranting, but a controlled burn instead.
Playing longtime spouses, Brooks and Hagerty play off each other well. There is a believable, and more importantly, likable charm between the two actors. At different points, you want to slap both of them for their interactions and actions, but through all the craziness, they come across as a believable couple. Hagerty is nice incarnate, her Linda making one crucial mistake as the couple heads out on the road, Brooks' David responding in volcano-like, fireworks diatribes. Marshall's quick appearance is a highlight while Art Frankel has a small but memorable part as an Employment agent who sits down with David late in the movie.
Sometimes the best comedy is the worst comedy. In other words, when the worst possible thing happens...it's damn funny. So picture this...a successful married couple leaves their stable lives behind to pursue an American dream of sorts. Surprising when it doesn't go according to plan (at all)? Nope, and that's where this Brooks-directed comedy rises above the rest. One thing after another gets thrown at the Howards to the point it becomes surreal. Brooks has a knack for making movies -- not just in the humor department -- and uses his camera in interesting ways that include long tracking shots and some perfectly edited cuts, including one that has the movie's funniest reveal late. The ending comes together quickly, but it works. The whole movie does. I just wish it had been a little longer.
Lost in America (1985): ***/****