Lost in America: The $100,000 Box

In the final third of Lost in America (1985), David and Linda Howard wind up in Safford, Arizona, bringing an abrupt and arbitrary end to their bold experiment of dropping out of society and finding themselves, like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Depleted of all but $800 of their “nest egg,” the yolk of which has splattered all over a roulette table in Las Vegas, the Howards steer their Winnebago off the highway and into the unknown—perhaps the first truly spontaneous act of the whole misadventure, because they’ve run out of better choices. They may not be “touching Indians,” as David initially envisions, but they’re finally roaming the country without a map or a compass, living wholly in the present, with the future as shrouded in darkness as the exit ramp.

“My legs are asleep,” says David. “Let’s live here.”

In the morning, the Howards explore the job market in Safford, which they soon discover is a modest destination for retirees, with a “sweet little creek” down the road and men on horseback clomping through the streets of the town. It’s possible to imagine that Fonda and Hopper once fueled up or camped out here on the road between Los Angeles and New Orleans, but the reality for David and Linda is significantly less romantic, more grounded in humbling practicality. David heads to the local employment office with dazzling creden­tials, including eight years as creative director at one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world, a job that earned him an $80,000 base salary and a bonus package that pushed him into six figures. He asks the employment officer if there’s a “box” for high-paying, white-collar job openings in Safford. The man laughs incredulously. “You mean the $100,000 box.” It is the latest in a series of humiliations dealt to him by noncoastal America, and not the last.

For Albert Brooks, who directed Lost in America from a script he wrote with Monica Johnson—his partner on five features, including his previous two, Real Life (1979) and Modern Romance (1981)—the $100,000 box is both joke and metaphor, a sign of David’s hilarious disconnect from ordinary Americans and the bourgeois prison in which he finds himself from the beginning. If there’s a defining mood to Brooks’s work as writer/director/star, it’s one of profound restlessness and dissatisfaction, often followed closely by the shame of leading a life of privilege and comfort and its never being enough. As David, Brooks wants for nothing but perspective, and the price for that perspective is the liquidated value of his material possessions and a sizable share of his dignity and self-worth. In the film’s moral reckoning, it’s a fair sum.

The $100,000 box is too small. That much is clear from the beginning of Lost in America, as David frets endlessly to his wife on the eve of a promotion so certain that they’ve already boxed up for a bigger house. Will he get the job and be happier in the new place? Are they moving far enough from the current place for it to feel like a real change? Should they have gotten a house with a tennis court, even if they don’t know how to play? (“If you have a court, you learn.”) As the patient and put-upon Linda, Julie Hagerty calmly swats away his concerns like Chris Evert Lloyd, all while masking her own lingering dissatisfaction, about which David is too self-involved to inquire. Linda knows that a bigger box won’t make a difference: the next morning, she confesses to a coworker that she cried over the burnt-orange tiles she picked out for the new kitchen. Hagerty’s quivering voice harmonizes beautifully with Brooks’s thundering comic whims, but moments like these suggest that Linda harbors private pains and desires she’s too browbeaten to express. Her meltdown on the casino floor, with Hagerty chanting the same cursed number in a state of sleepless, trancelike delirium (“twenty-two, twenty-two, two-two”), was a long time coming. Linda knows what dropping out of society really entails, and, subconsciously, she gets them where they need to be.

Lost in America is an era-defining comedy about the state of baby boomer values in the Reagan years, but more specifically, it’s about a man learning to come to terms with his car upholstery. In the minutes before meeting with his boss about the senior vice president position, David is on the phone haggling with his Mercedes dealer over his new car. It’s top-of-the-line, only it doesn’t come with a leather interior; it comes with “Mercedes leather,” which the dealer describes as “thick vinyl.” Brooks would return to a similar dilemma in his afterlife comedy Defending Your Life (1991), in which his character dies in a BMW convertible that looks pitiful in comparison to the better model across the lot. These are beautiful cars—they would turn heads in Safford, including, in the end, David’s own—but the folly of an Albert Brooks character is that the vinyl will make him itch, knowing someone more fortunate than him, someone better than him, is sitting on genuine leather.

This film continued Brooks’s yen for comic deconstruction, which was cele­brated well before he started making movies. In stand-up performances, talk-show appearances, Saturday Night Live shorts, and two conceptually striking albums, Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1975), Brooks made delicious sport of picking apart the techniques and clichés of comedy. He appeared as “Dave and Danny,” the world’s worst ventriloquist act, on The Flip Wilson Show; toured the Famous School for Comedians, which offers a class on spit takes, in a Great American Dream Machine short; and in the early eighties, nearly brought Johnny Carson to tears with a food-based “impersonation kit” that included a bitter lemon for Gone with the Wind–era Clark Gable and a hot potato for Burt Lancaster and Curly from the Three Stooges.

That same conceptual shrewdness followed him into his features, which are often about grand experiments undone by the flaws of their originators. Real Life riffed on the contrivances of the landmark PBS documentary An American Family, which posited the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, as a stand-in for the suburban middle class. In Brooks’s hands, the presence of a Hollywood film director and a swarming camera-helmet-clad crew distorts and perverts “reality” at every turn. In thumbing his nose at documentary realism, he wound up predicting a dominant TV genre before the Kardashian sisters were even born. Later, in Mother (1996), Brooks would play a science-fiction novelist who moves back into his childhood home to figure out where his life went astray, and to pin the guilt on his befuddled mother. These experiments do eventually yield insight into human nature, but they make a mess of things first.

In putting himself at the center of his comedies, Brooks could play it cute and self-deprecating, like the fumblings of a well-intentioned guy whom the universe is scolding lightly for his hubris. And once his filmmaking career shifted to Defending Your Life and beyond, Brooks learned to be less caustic and more forgiving of himself—to open the door, however slightly, to the possibility that he could learn and grow and become a wiser and more substantive person. But the Brooks of Lost in America, and Modern Romance and Real Life before it, has no interest in ingratiating himself with the audience, which may explain why these movies struggled so much at the box office. As a Hollywood director trying to eke authentic drama out of a suburban family in Real Life, his ego and crass commercialism perpetually inter­fere with the project, to the point where he literally destroys their home to get the ending he needs. The pathological jealousy that binds his character to the miserable on-again, off-again relationship in Modern Romance is so extreme that he could be the undercard to Jake LaMotta from the previous year’s Raging Bull. Not long after Lost in America, Brooks would bring that same irascibility to the role of a heartsick journalist in James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News. He shares a telling wish: “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If ‘needy’ were a turn-on?” In that world, perhaps, Brooks would be the most beloved comedian in America, not merely the most beloved by other comedians.

Brooks’s gift for conceptual comedy on film has been evident since those early shorts, which presaged the current viral wave of digital shorts, but his filmmaking style is rigorously observational, scoring laughs less on throwaway banter than through the steady accumulation of misfortune. Fans of Lost in America can talk about it in the shorthand of set pieces—the “Desert Inn has heart” scene, the “nest egg” scene, the “$100,000 box” scene—that have the patience to work themselves into a comic lather, as David sinks deeper and deeper into an existential crisis. When David loses his job, Brooks watches as he goes through three of the five stages of grief, a hoped-for promotion leading to denial (“Let’s bring in Allen Funt and end this thing”), bargaining (“You have to keep your promise to me”), and anger (“I’ve seen the future! It’s a bald-headed man from New York!”). Later, when the Howards’ experiment runs aground in Arizona, Brooks lingers on David working the corner as a crossing guard, absorbing taunts from teenagers on bikes and slouching so far into a folding chair that it seems like he might never reemerge.

That folding chair is the kind of cosmic punishment that’s common in Brooks’s films, like being consigned to the purgatory of a shabbily appointed hotel in Defending Your Life. In Lost in America, David and Linda’s experiment is hopelessly flawed, bound up in creature comforts and the security afforded by their nest egg—that protector god of cash, personal checks, and traveler’s checks that keeps the rain from falling on their heads. David makes the creative argu­ment that the heroes of Easy Rider had a nest egg, too, in all the cocaine they were hauling around, but they certainly weren’t hitting the road in a souped-up Winnebago with a browning element in the microwave. Brooks treads lightly on references to Easy Rider, but the “Born to Be Wild” music cue quotes it directly as the Howards peel out of Los Angeles and into the freedom of the open road. The defining image of Lost in America is David giving a simpatico thumbs-up to a biker in the next lane, only to get a middle finger in return. He is instantly recognized as an impostor.

Perhaps a truer road map for Lost in America than Easy Rider is the 1941 Preston Sturges movie Sullivan’s Travels, in which Joel McCrea, a successful director of escapist fare, attempts to get in touch with a more authentic America by posing as a hobo and hitchhiking across the country. McCrea comes much closer to “touching Indians” in Sullivan’s Travels than the Howards, who wind up hightailing it to New York before knowing true destitution, though they do knock their chins several times on the way down the social ladder. David’s bathrobe pitch to Garry Marshall’s casino manager to get him to return Linda’s gambling losses is perhaps the film’s most famous scene, but Lost in America is littered with minor humiliations, like David bribing his way into the “junior bridal suite” or indulging a hackneyed Ford jingle to “New York, New York” as his dreams of upward mobility fritter away. The common thread through all these mishaps is the limitations of money and status—how neither ever quite delivers on its promises.

Yet underpinning the follies of Lost in America is a true generational angst, a feeling common to many counterculture types who sold themselves out and didn’t find spiritual fulfillment in return. Released smack in the middle of the Reagan Revolution, which had elevated capitalism to the unofficial national religion, the film is suffused with the regrets of baby boomers who had become its inadvertent foot soldiers. David reflects mournfully on the friends they laughed at for going off and “finding themselves,” while he and Linda took the business route and are now in a position where they can’t turn back the clock, no matter how hard they try. They can’t drop out of society. They are society.

Which brings us back to the box, the $100,000 box. Of the many ironies in Lost in America, the most pointed may be that the Howards cover a greater swath of America than the bikers in Easy Rider but experience almost none of it. Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the trailer park in Safford, Arizona, are the only places they set down stakes, and the rest of the country is a montage blur of road signs and landmarks as they scurry back to the lives they’ve left behind. Maybe they’ll laugh about their misadventures someday. Maybe they’ll share a few embarrassing anecdotes at a party. And maybe they’ll learn, through hard luck and humility, that the box isn’t so confining after all.

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