Albert Brooks’ million-dollar smile and boisterous, overbearing persona had to melt. He started out fully formed, the post-modern comic analyst prepared to peel back the veneer of comedy being the province of well-fed men in tuxedos cracking each other up. The history of comedy had reached one of its many sea changes. The advent of sound in film and the golden age of radio that grew after the advent of commercial programming saw Jack Benny, The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello, and Laurel & Hardy become superstars. Slowly, America got used to a more frank, bordering on ribald, form of humor, and so the likes of Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Burns & Allen, Nichols & May, Buddy Hackett, and, of course, Lenny Bruce rose to prominence. However, the death of Bruce in 1966, just as his act had abandoned jokes for confrontational rants about the state of media, meant that comedy couldn’t go back to the way it was. And by the late ’60s and early ’70s, most of the aforementioned comics became kitsch acts trotted out for Dean Martin roasts and variety TV specials. So, it was time for something new, something that could comment on the waning days of public domain lounge acts or dust-coated punchlines, and Brooks was the man for the job.
Brooks made short films on Saturday Night Live that didn’t exactly gel with the stoned smart alecks in the writers room and in front of the camera. Brooks was smarter than John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase, and he was more of a born star than someone like Al Franken or Garrett Morris, and he arrived with ironclad shtick that constantly evolved with current comedy and critiqued itself at every turn. His movies and records were about teaching comedy to the layman, with Brooks acting as the privileged insider who’d learned all its secrets. He’d use his spot making short films on SNL (forerunners of the short form work of The Lonely Island) to hawk his records on primetime while presenting a man who appeared to be above it. When his first feature film debuted, 1979’s Real Life, it opened with a segment that could have been taken in isolation as one of the last great Brooks short films. He introduces himself to the residents of Phoenix, Arizona in their city council building by singing a song with what he could afford of The Mere Griffin Orchestra that includes a few seconds of crowd work and lyrics tailored to the place. It’s a hilariously slick introduction to Brooks, who, by the end of the film, has gone mad and has tried to burn his film to the ground literally to give it an ending akin to Gone with the Wind.
Next came 1981’s Modern Romance, in which Brooks is front and center as the most controlling nebbish in the world, riddled with jealousy and his inferiority complex. He’s the villain of his own story but he can’t see it. He thinks he’s got the world and women figured out, much like his early persona had conquered the secrets of comedy, but his surfeit of knowledge just lays him up in a fog of awful curiosity. Every minute he’s not with his girlfriend (then ex-girlfriend, then girlfriend again, then fiancé, then ex-wife) he’s just imagining all the men she’s with instead of him. For his next trick, he’d decimate every piece of the LA Yuppie persona and the supposed enlightenment of the well-to-do.
1985’s Lost in America was his biggest box office success to date and the announcement that the new Brooks persona — the man falling apart at the seams — would be replacing the showbiz wheeler dealer permanently. It opens with a radio interview with Rex Reed (a frequent target of Brooks’ gentle ire) that ends with him saying that if he’s watching a comedy, he doesn’t need to see it in a packed house. “If it’s really funny, I’ll laugh.” Brooks, who was all about manipulation of expectations and roasting himself, opens with a dare. Brooks plays David Howard, a junior executive at an advertising firm expecting a big promotion so he and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) can get buy a new house and really start their lives. When he’s denied the new job, he snaps and quits in as flamboyant a fashion as possible. “I’ve seen the future and it’s a bald man from New York!” He convinces Linda to abandon their future plans in favor of purchasing an RV and seeing the real America. “We need to touch Indians!” Is his constant, deeply shallow refrain. He doesn’t seem to understand that the America he thinks he’s about to go explore never existed and he bought it hook, line, and sinker from commercial agencies like the one for which he used to work and movies like Easy Rider — another of Brooks the writers’ favorite hobby horses.
Easy Rider was a frequent target of Brooks because settled men in condos idolized the drugged up free spirits on the bikes. The cop who pulls David and Linda over in Arizona loves the film, not realizing he represents everything the movie stands against. Men everywhere saw themselves in Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, even as they lived creatively stymied with existences utterly dependent on capitalism and law and order. They’d never throw everything away. Sure enough, it’s not even 24 hours into their journey before David realizes his dreams and reality won’t ever mix. Linda gambles away their money and despite David’s attempts to get it back from a pit boss (played splendidly by an unflappable Garry Marshall), they’re broke, trapped in an RV, and have no job prospects. They never wanted the experience to turn out the way they planned; they wanted the exact comfort, just without the responsibility and the phone bill. Like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, Brooks films the few wonders of America they find, like the Hoover Dam, as just the backdrop for the petty bickering of two frustrated boomers. They’re equally helpless, and though they agree they hated their old life, they cannot hack it as pioneers. They’re like indoor cats let out for the first time, suddenly scratching to get back in.
The empty promise of the American dream is the implicit subject of most of his films, but in Lost in America, they’re the most exquisitely drawn. Failure and pettiness haunt David and Linda, and Brooks finds compelling ways to frame them. (He was never the most exacting visual stylist, though he had his moments, as in the King Vidor-influenced opening of 1991’s Defending Your Life. By 1996’s Mother, the camera was just there to capture the dialogue and performances, though those never lost their sharpness). The argument at the Hoover Dam has them walking a thin sidewalk while Brooks and his long shadow bear down Hagerty as she tries to hitchhike away from him. It’s lovely to consider, but it’s also the whole movie in one composition. All around them is natural beauty and the open road, but they’re stuck to each other and their awful neediness. The way he handles the blocking in the scene where Haggerty gambles away their nest egg is done in one long, hyperactive take, the camera following a robe-cold Brooks as he rockets between the roulette wheel and Marshall. In scenes like this, the film most resembles Preston Sturges, Brooks most obvious predecessor (his boorish insecurities and her meek messiness recall the pairing of Betty Hutton & Eddie Bracken in Sturges’ best movies).
Naturally the film wouldn’t work unless David and Linda are killed as in Easy Rider, which would have been too bleak for a comedy, so he has them come crawling back to the society they fled while Sinatra triumphantly swings on the soundtrack, cynically mythologizing Brooks as he sells right back out. He’s becoming part of something bigger and more important than his and his wife’s own happiness. They never wanted the real America and now they’ll never have to see it again.
Where’s It Streaming? HBO Go