JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR CRITIC-AT-LARGE: A lot of comedians are funny. But only a handful have the genius to shape the comic terrain. One of them is Albert Brooks, who, in a cosmic bad joke, is probably best known to today’s audiences as the voice of Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” But back in the early ’70s, in a famous Esquire article and a series of legendary “Tonight Show” performances, Brooks set about gleefully exploding the schticks and traditions of standup comedy.
Making comedy about comedy, he blazed the trail for such later masters of showbiz meta as Steve Martin, David Letterman and Bill Murray. By the late ’70s, Brooks was making movies, starting with three groundbreaking comedies that explored the triumph of modern narcissism in all its cringe-worthy hilarity. The greatest of these is “Lost In America,” just out in in a gorgeous, new package from the Criterion Collection that I highly recommend – but also widely streamable.
Made at the very height of the Reagan years, “Lost In America,” co-written with Monica Johnson, feels as relevant to our selfie-mad times as it did in 1985. Brooks stars as David Howard, an LA ad man who makes “Mad Men’s” Don Draper looks like a figure of Shakespearean grandeur. Living a comfortably middle-class life with his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty, the neurotic David is looking forward to a promotion so he can buy a new Mercedes and get an even bigger house. When the promotion is denied, he quits his job in a huff and bullies Linda into quitting hers. He insists they must sell off everything, hit the road and be free. Before we know it, the two are cruising east in their Winnebago, doing their own cushy version of “Easy Rider.” But when they stopped to get remarried in Las Vegas, all that bursting neon unleashes unforeseen consequences, including a classic encounter between David and a casino boss played by the late Garry Marshall. From that point on, David and Linda find themselves living in a reality far different to the one they imagined and far funnier in part because its stars are so perfectly matched.
Brooks is one of the most majestic ranters and kvetchers is in movie history. And his verbal mania is only fueled by Hagerty’s googly-eyed daffiness. Now, Brooks’s comic approach is unsentimental and often uncomfortable. David may be all too human. Brooks clearly sees something of himself in the guy. But he’s far from lovable. Indeed, pointing the way to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Brooks’s work creates the prototype of the annoyingly selfish hero who stews in anxiety, bad faith and a sense of always being right. When “Lost In America” came out, it was instantly recognized as a trenchant satire of the emerging species known as yuppies, with their materialism, sense of entitlement and unidealistic belief that the world is their oyster. What was less clear then was that Brooks was also the first filmmaker to capture the essence of bourgeois Bohemianism, the attempt to embrace the cool lifestyle of the rebel while still having money and comfort. That fantasy is alive and kicking among today’s urban strivers, who play vinyl, go glamping and drink artisanal coffee as they try to make their millions. While David and Linda are actually uneasy riders, they don’t know how to change their lives. The road they travel isn’t “Easy Riders” dreamy America, either. MORE