Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead bringing zombies to the Vegas strip, we’re bringing Vegas to Watch This.
Is there another American filmmaker who has satirized generational anxieties and vacillations as savagely as Albert Brooks? In Lost In America, his scathing comedy about a yuppie couple who decide to “drop out” of Reagan-era conformity to live the Easy Rider dream of the 1960s in a Winnebago, he gives us the classic Me Generation symptoms: entitlement, delusion, and the curdled false promise of economic stability at the expense of social liberation. Real life—not coincidentally, the title of Brooks’s directorial debut—is supposed to be out there, waiting to be discovered, away from bills, mortgages, and consumerism. Except, of course, it isn’t: The ’60s were just a movie that no one remembers right.
Even the idea of dropping out is self-deluding. David Howard (Brooks) hasn’t actually experienced a eureka moment about the discontent of the straight world. He’s been fired from his cushy ad agency job because he melted down after not getting an expected promotion. (Is there a once ubiquitous trope that seems more obsolete today than the Big Promotion?) It’s his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), who seems to be the truly dissatisfied party. In an early-midlife-crisis folie à deux, they liquidate their assets, move into an RV, and set off with a $100,000 “nest egg” (about $250,000 in today’s dollars) to find themselves.
They get only as far as Desert Inn in Las Vegas before the dream evaporates. In peak form—which is to say, in this film and in Modern Romance—Brooks is one of the best and most distinctive directors in American comedy, building a scene from long takes, wide shots, speech rhythms, and pitch-perfect deliveries from highly credible bit characters (among the best here is the director Garry Marshall’s turn as a seen-it-all casino manager). He even manages to find a way to skip the exciting part of a bad gambling streak: the early winnings. Only a small part of Lost In America is set in Las Vegas, but it manages to encapsulate both the film and the bleak Brooks sensibility, a slow crescendo that begins with disappointment at arrival and ends with the pathetic sight of David, in a bathrobe, trying to talk the casino into giving him back his life savings by pitching an ad campaign.
What makes Brooks’ comedy so caustically funny—and cover-your-eyes squirmy—is that the character really believes it. This slow burn is obviously the film’s highlight (or low point, depending on one’s point of view), but there are more excruciating attempts at self-discovery and affirmation to come. As it turns out, the Howards’ new mobile home is taking them to the only place where it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb: the trailer park. And the only enlightenment in store for these two is the realization that it’s better to be a have than a have-not. Beyond that, just as in Vegas, there’s only the desert.