Lost in America

Brooks' chef d'oeuvre, Lost in America (1985), is a sharply observed satire about disillusioned yuppies who take to the road in an ill-fated attempt to “find themselves.” More open and generous than his previous films, and with an hero who's less obnoxious, the movie became Brooks' first commercial success.

David Howard, a thirtysomething yuppie at a big L.A. ad firm, anticipates promotion to vice-president after eight years of hard work. He and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) have purchased a new house and plan to buy a Mercedes sedan. They belong to the new corporate narcissists, who define their lives by conspicuous consumption. Each extravagant purchase leads to a bigger one, but there's always something wrong: the new car costs over $40,000, but doesn't have leather seats.

Instead of receiving his promotion, David is offered a new account and immediate transfer to New York. Since his whole life has been leading up to that promotion, his failure is a repudiation of his life. Disgusted and enraged, David quits his job, and puts pressure on his wife to quit hers too. After the initial shock, David gets inspired, suggesting to sell their possessions and buy a mobile home and wander wherever the impulse takes them–“It's just like Easy Rider, only now it's our turn.” That movie made a lasting impression on him as the ultimate image of freedom, and they leave L.A. in their new Winnebago to the tune of “Born to Be Wild.” David embraces his new capacity as a self-proclaimed social dropout with his customary baravado.

Lost in America was the first inspired comedy in a cycle of films about a yuppie's mid-life crisis. “Nothing's changing anymore. We've just stopped,” Linda says, not realizing that their options are just going to get bleaker. The adaptable Linda starts out as a tower of strength, but crumbles at a Vegas dice table, where she loses the family's worshipped “nest egg” with hysterical abandon. In the film's most hilarious scene, David makes a stab at persuading the casino owner (Garry K. Marshall) that his generosity would be good for the image of the place.

Nominally a road movie, Lost in America is basically an anti-travel movie, a yuppie anthem, as Andrew Sarris has noted, alongside Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar ballad, “Born in the U.S.” The cross-country odyssey becomes an abbreviated, object-lesson voyage into America's landscape of the 1980s.

Lost in America is still Brooks' most darkly comic movie, with humor inherent in the dismal progression of disasters, but it's also his most forgiving. Nothing works–David is unqualified for anything but his old ad job and his subsequent one as a school crossing guard–and at the end, he and Linda crawl back to society, begging for mercy. The movie dissects mercilessly yuppie materialism and then mercifully emerges from the depths of disaster to a realism about life in today's America.