Revisiting Hours: ‘Lost in America,’ The Great American Economic Horror Movie

Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Matt Zoller Seitz on Albert Brooks’ 1985 livin’-in-the-USA comedy of Lost in America.

You might expect to see a timeless portrait of American greed, class resentment and cluelessness about money in right in the middle of a two-term Reagan era. You may not have expected it to come from Albert Brooks. But go back and watch the comedian/filmmaker’s Lost in America. Go ahead, we’ve got all day. And now tell us that it does not feel like a premonition of the trainwreck that the country would become. It begins as a riff on Easy Rider, the Sixties counterculture movie that reminded folks to tune in, turn on, drop out. It peaks when its protagonist, having just lost everything, does the movie-hero thing and asks an authority figure to show some mercy and give him a take-back. It does not go well. This is the story of a man who went searching for Santa Claus and, circa 1985, could not find him anywhere.

David Howard (director-cowriter-star Brooks), a yuppie advertising executive, has just “dropped out” of American life along with his department store manager wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), after being denied a promotion he believed he was entitled to. Well, that’s not exactly what happened: Let’s say that David didn’t get the promotion and didn’t handle it well. (“Fuck you!” he shouts at his boss, adding, “Our toupee secret is off!”) In a fit of pique that’s built partly on his spouse’s misgivings about becoming even more bourgeouis than they already were, the Howards eat the deposit on the “behemoth” of a mansion they were going to purchase, buy a gas-guzzling Winnebago and drive it to Las Vegas. The idea is to renew their wedding vows before embarking on a cross-country odyssey modeled on one of David’s favorite movies — that Dennis Hopper hippie touchstone about the allure of the open road.

Then Linda, who apparently always had a horrific gambling problem but never quite realized it, loses the Howards’ nest egg playing roulette at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino. David, still clad in the bathrobe he donned after waking up alone in their room, sits in the office of the hotel’s manager (the late Garry Marshall). He pleads with him to return their money. There’s no way such a thing could ever happen, but nevertheless, he persists. The former ad man devises a billboard slogan and an advertising jingle (“The Desert Inn has heart!”), spinning a scenario wherein the casino reaps PR rewards by giving them back their nest egg after “reviewing [their] situation” and agreeing that there’s a “distinct division between the bold, who are out there searching, and all the other schmucks who come here to see Wayne Newton.”

“I like Wayne Newton,” the manager replies.

“It was stupid of me to use an entertainer as a dividing line,” David pivots.

Right before he’s ushered out, our hero suggests bringing in Santa Claus as a new casino mascot. “Las Vegas!” David exclaims, his desperation turning to madness. “A Christmas place to be!” “We’re finished talking,” the casino manager says. The roulette wheel leaves the Howards with less than $1000. Forget retirement: That’s barely enough to feed them and keep the Winnebago in gas for a few months. 

Although it soon started building a fan base on home video, Lost in America was not a theatrical hit initially; its acidic satire and panoramic ironies were too alarming for Americans in the arch-conservative 1980s. There’s never a perfect moment to release a film about a well-off couple that loses almost everything and has trouble adapting to the kind of life everyone else has to live. But Brooks’ timing was acutely bad in this case. The movie hit theaters on February 15th, 1985, three years after the worst recession of modern times, and only two weeks after the beginning of the second term of President Ronald Reagan, whose administration kicked off a decades-long process of tearing away safety-net social programs, cutting taxes for corporations and well-off people. Everybody else assumed that they’d make money through “trickle-down economics.” Naturally, the trickle didn’t fill the economic waters and lift all boats as promised.

But the underlying appeal to America’s beloved myth of up-by-your-own-boostraps success persisted, and was enshrined in movies about go-getters. The heroes of these stories rose to the top of corporations where they’d only just begun to work (Secret of My Success, Gung Ho), came in from outside and became stars on the basis of their gumption or big ideas (Big, Working Girl) or shined as entrepreneurs outside the system, legal or otherwise (Baby Boom, Risky Business). 

Lost in America, on the other hand, showed a couple of upper-middle-class, white, educated Americans who’d followed the prescribed track to success their entire adult lives. David calls it a “nowhere road” that “goes around and around in circles …. It’s the carrot and the stick and the watch when you’re 60” — only to find themselves on the other side of 40 wondering when their pot of gold, or happiness, would land in their laps. Worse, they make the catastrophic mistake of assuming that The System, such as it is, would care even a tiny bit about people who no longer wanted to be a part of it, and who somehow managed to make it to middle age without realizing how coldly indifferent people are to any problems that aren’t theirs, especially when they’re as privileged and oblivious as the Howards.

When the story begins, Linda is already expressing unease about the repetitious emptiness of their life. “You know, [David] genuinely believes this promotion is gonna change his life, but he believed that about every single promotion, and it never does,” Linda tells a department store coworker. Most of the characters that the Howards encounter after Las Vegas would’ve been overjoyed to have a quarter of what they had, and their seeming inability to see the humanity in other people dooms them to suffer alone. To quote Keith David’s African-American draftee in the following year’s Best Picture winner Platoon, after learning that the movie’s hero was a pampered white boy who enlisted because he thought the war was unfair to everyone else: “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.” Linda’s compulsive destruction of the nest egg turns her unconscious wish into a reality: Now they really do have to drop out. That’s a frightening prospect, because as David notes, even the nomadic bikers in Easy Rider had a nest egg. “They had all that cocaine!” he exclaims.

She wasn’t wrong to question the falsity of the American dream as it was defined in the late 20th century, a time when people still had a shot at landing lifelong jobs, some of which offered pensions. But Linda (like her husband) has failed to keep things in perspective. “We found ourselves,” David moans at her post-Vegas, “Oh, boy, did we find ourselves … in the middle of nowhere … with nothing!” Everything they’d worked so hard for — along with every advantage they’d accrued by virtue of being educated and white — vanished in a blink of an eye. And in begging for sympathy from regular working people, they elicit nothing but mockery, sometimes worse. After a fight at the Hoover Dam, where David screams a lecture at his wife about “the importance of the nest egg,” she accepts a ride with an ex-convict who later punches her husband in the nose and chases him around the parked Winnebago, telling him, “You remind me of everything I hate.”

When they settle in a trailer park — a place they previously intended to visit, but never wanted to live in — they seem as out-of-place as Thurston and Lovey Howell on Gilligan’s Island. When David visits an employment office, he tells the case manager he used to make $100,000 a year, and asks if there are any executive jobs available,. The man’s eyes light up at the prospect of being able to torment such a clueless city slicker: “Oh, you mean the $100,000 box!” David and Linda are what Breitbart and Fox News Channel would call “coastal elites,” and part of their humbling involves having to deal with people they either never thought about or condescended to. The hostility is mutual, though it’s often masked with a bright-eyed grin and various signifiers of politeness.

David’s mockery of 19-year old fast food restaurant manager named Skippy is a hilarious send-up of the way that cogs in the machine talk like captains of industry in order to convince themselves they aren’t cogs. But it also captures the ingrained condescension that the executive class, represented by David, feels towards anyone who has to wear a nametag, a cap, and a uniform that doesn’t include a jacket and tie. A motorcycle cop who pulls the couple over for speeding lets them off the hook when they cite Easy Rider as their guiding light, only it’s not the bonding experience they hoped for. He’s not exactly a counterculture type. “Remember the ending, when they got blown away?” he exclaims. “That made my day!”

This is a comedy? 

My late stepfather didn’t think so. As a college film student, I brought Lost in America home on VHS cassette and showed it to him and my mother. They loved it up right until the roulette wheel scene. Soon afterward, he got up from his ratty corduroy chair and went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. A few minutes later, my mother abandoned the movie for a book she’d already read at least twice.

“What happened?” I asked my stepfather in the kitchen. “You were both laughing.”

“You told me that was a comedy,” he said over the sound of water running in the sink. “They lost everything. That’s almost the worst thing that could happen to a person. It’s a horror movie.

Well, yeah, kind of. But it’s also a classic, and the horror movie undertone is what makes it special as well as unsettling. Lost in America stared into a series of national abysses that were decades away from opening up, including the 2008 recession, in which banks, savings and loans and realtors gambled away billions and crashed the economy (and, unlike the Howards, got their money back and were never really punished) and the 2016 election of Donald Trump, which exposed deeper fissures between Red and Blue America that only the pessimistic sociologists had noted. This is a movie that was completely of its time and way ahead of it. It might also have captured certain truths, seemingly eternal, about class resentment in a supposedly classless society, and the frigid indifference of the powerful towards the powerless, be they chronically impoverished or only temporarily humbled.

This being a comedy, the Howards achieve some semblance of a happy ending, resetting their lives by groveling for a poor facsimile of what they used to have. The Desert Inn does not have heart. There is no Santa Claus. We have to be kind to each other. In the end, that’s all we’ve got. 

Previously: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

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