Katherine G.

Lost In America Embalms the New Hollywood Road Movie with 80s Cynicism


Lost In America
(dir. Albert Brooks, 1985) tells the story of a married professional couple who “drop out” of society to roam the United States in an RV à la Easy Rider. The irony is inherent to the concept, but the narrative unfolds it to its full potential by prodding its characters incrementally toward their inevitable failure. Unlike its self serious predecessor’s approach of tragic irony,
Lost In America handles the futility of the American dream with the deranged comedic detachment of resignation to the (admittedly comfortable, albeit monotonous) status quo in an arch eulogy for the New Hollywood road movie.

David and Linda Howard are quintessential yuppies. Their identity is defined by this era-specific term that denotes upward social and financial mobility. David quits his advertising job not on principle, but out of frustration after being denied a promotion. They liquefy all of their assets into a comfortable “nest egg” to live on for their remaining years: not exactly “free-spirited.” And their first stop is Las Vegas, the American mecca of consumerist debauchery. Again, every additional element heightens the film’s satirical premise.

In Vegas, soft-spoken Linda reveals herself to be a compulsive gambler and loses the entire nest egg in the middle of the night. David’s comically disgraceful attempt to convince the casino owner to refund the Howards their money, complete with a desperate advertising pitch featuring Santa Claus, establishes that his professional skills are unhelpful outside of an office and cannot help him in the “real world.” Linda, too, proves unadaptable to these non-yuppie environs through her inability to control herself at the blackjack table, thereby threatening a marriage built on stasis and responsibility and financial comfort.

Beside the Hoover Dam, the couple argue over the plot of Easy Rider. We never see the national landmark in all its glory; instead, we linger on the side of the road as the Howards bicker about whether Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper “dropped out with nothing” or “sold a ton of cocaine” at the beginning of the movie (they did the latter, a point which further tarnishes the ideological purity of both pairs’ endeavors).

Both David and Linda view the lifestyle depicted in that movie as exemplary in some way, even though the film itself is arguably about the disappointing “reality” of such a lifestyle. David and Linda bond with a police officer over their love of the film and he tears up their ticket as a result. That an officer of the law could adore a film with staunchly anti-establishment leanings indicates a misunderstanding and re-appropriation of an American cultural touchstone made possible by the superficial concerns of the “yuppie” era.

Linda and David’s decision to go to New York and “eat shit” for David to retain his old job, followed by a montage of the increasingly exhausted travelers driving across the country set to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” satirizes the couple’s renewed faith in the stifling yuppie lifestyle as euphorically positive, highlighting the romanticized nature of that vision with the use of the iconic song over less-optimistic footage of the RV merging with choked-up city traffic - a less visceral but more insidious final image than the explosion at the end of Easy Rider.

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